WASHINGTON President Barack Obama will lay out ideas to tackle the U.S. budget deficit after November elections and make the issue a top priority in 2011 regardless of any power shifts in Congress, a top adviser said on Monday.
Speaking at the Reuters Washington Summit, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the deficit and education reform would top Obama's to-do list, whether or not Democrats hold on to their congressional majorities in the November 2 elections.
"There is no doubt that we are going to have to make, Democrat and Republican, some choices on the medium- and long-term fiscal picture," Gibbs said.
"On fiscal restructuring, the president will put some ideas and some issues on the table and we'll see if the Republican Party is serious about meeting him halfway."
Bringing down a projected deficit of around $1.4 trillion and public debt of $13 trillion has taken on greater political weight in recent months and helped boost Republicans -- including from the Tea Party movement -- ahead of November polls, which could change the balance of power in Congress.
Gibbs said Obama, a Democrat, had a track record of working with the opposition party, and he challenged Republicans to be specific about their ideas.
"You have heard the other side talk almost exclusively about spending for 20 months, but at some point they are going to have to come up with some concrete proposals," Gibbs said.
"Regardless of the (election) outcome, of what the numbers are the next day, they are not going to be able to just say, 'No.'"
Obama said at a town hall-style meeting on Monday that as president he had to set a better tone so that all sides could work together in a more constructive way.
Obama set up a fiscal commission made up of members from both political parties. It is slated to make recommendations after the November elections.
"The president was smart in having the fiscal commission coming back after the political season. I think the good conversations have to be had after the election on how we deal with some of the medium- and the short-term (problems)," said Gibbs.
OBAMA WEIGHING IDEAS
Gibbs said Obama had spent two years looking at potential ways to tackle the deficit. Asked whether Obama was mulling ideas before the release of the deficit commission's report that he would support, Gibbs said: "Absolutely."
He declined to spell out specific proposals that Obama planned to make.
The White House has highlighted the deficit commission's work as a critical step toward reaching consensus and has signaled it will call Republicans' bluff if they preach deficit reduction but fail to support proposals to rein in spending or raise taxes.
Commissions are a time-honored Washington method of outsourcing difficult decisions. Budget hawks, including many lawmakers, say Congress has shown that it lacks the political will to get the budget under control.
During Monday's town hall meeting, Obama urged Tea Party activists to be specific about how they would cut government spending, saying they should say they are prepared to cut benefits for military veterans, for example, or make cuts to social programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
Obama said last week that all budget items had to be on the table when looking at the deficit picture, including defense spending and food stamps for the poor.
He said Americans faced "tough decisions" on cutting the deficit and that the country had to get a handle on the exploding costs of Medicare and Medicaid.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Ross Colvin; additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)