Still hope for big fiscal deal with Obama, top Republicans say
WASHINGTON, March 17
WASHINGTON, March 17 (Reuters) - Senior congressional Republicans said on Sunday they see a chance for a broad deal with President Barack Obama on deficit reduction and reining in spending on vast government programs like Medicare and one senator signaled potential flexibility on taxes.
Obama, who met with lawmakers of both parties last week, has been calling for more tax increases on the wealthiest taxpayers, coupled with new spending cuts, to help curb budget deficits that have exceeded $1 trillion in each of the past four years.
House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top Republican in Congress, and Obama failed to come to terms at the end of last year on an agreement to get America's fiscal house in order.
Such a deal could include spending cuts, tax reform and curbing spending on costly entitlement programs like the Social Security retirement program and the Medicare health insurance program for the elderly and disabled.
Speaking on the "Fox News Sunday" program, Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said: "There, by the way, is a chance on a deal. I know the president is saying the right things. And we have an opportunity over the next four to five months."
Asked on the ABC program "This Week" if prospects for a "grand bargain" were dead, Boehner said, "I don't know whether we can come to a big agreement. If we do, it'll be between the two parties on Capitol Hill. Hopefully, we can go to conference on these budgets - and hope springs eternal in my mind."
Boehner said that while the United States does not have "an immediate debt crisis" one is looming because entitlement programs are not sustainable in their current form. "They're going to go bankrupt," he said.
Asked how long the country had to solve these problems, Boehner said, "Nobody knows where this is. It could be a year or two years, three years, four years."
Obama has engaged in a couple of weeks of outreach to lawmakers - some have called it a "charm offensive" - but the prospects of a large deficit reduction deal by midyear remained unclear.
Corker underscored the importance of reform in the huge entitlement programs like Medicare.
'GOOD ENTITLEMENT REFORM'
"I think Republicans, if they saw true entitlement reform, would be glad to look at tax reform that generates additional revenue. And that doesn't mean increasing rates. That means closing loopholes. It also means arranging our tax system so that we have economic growth."
Boehner said he has "a very good relationship" with Obama, they are "trying to bridge some big differences" and that he "absolutely" trusts the president.
But Boehner said that if Obama "believes that we have to have more taxes from the American people, we're not going to get very far."
"If the president doesn't believe that the goal ought to be to balance the budget over the next 10 years ... (I'm) not sure we're going to get very far," he said.
Obama met last Wednesday with House Republicans and made little headway in persuading them to accept his demand for tax hikes as part of any deficit-reduction deal.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress last Tuesday offered up vastly different plans to slash long-term deficits.
On Thursday, a Senate bill to avert a federal government shutdown stalled under the weight of more than 100 proposed amendments as senators sought to attach pet provisions.
Senate Democratic leaders postponed further votes on the government spending legislation until Monday and said they would work over the weekend to try to whittle down the number of amendments. They had hoped to pass the measure on Thursday.
Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, said senators must pass the budget resolution "and then we're going to move to the next stage - and that is the grand bargain stage. That's what the president has tried to set up."
The added provisions in the Senate budget measure threatened to make the bill unacceptable to the Republican-controlled House, which last week passed a much less complicated version of the extension to government funding through Sept. 30. Government agencies and programs face a broad shutdown if Congress fails to pass an extension by March 27.