(Reuters) - President Barack Obama and congressional leaders resume their White House talks on Monday to see if they have the makings of a deal to trim budget deficits and avert a looming default.
The Treasury Department has warned it will run out of money to cover the country’s bills if Congress does not raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling by August 2.
Although Democrats and Republicans agree on the need for trillions of dollars in budget savings, they remain sharply divided about how to get there.
Following is a summary of the debate:
In earlier talks led by Vice President Joe Biden, the two sides tentatively agreed to limit the growth of the annual discretionary spending that covers everything from law enforcement to airport security and the military.
Those savings would amount to between $900 billion and $1.3 trillion over 10 years, aides from both parties say.
First they must agree on the starting point. Should it be the budget that was in effect in January, the slimmed-down version that passed in April or the even lower level that Republicans hope to have in place later this year? That could make a difference of hundreds of billions of dollars.
Another area of disagreement: Democrats want a guaranteed portion of those cuts to come from military spending, an idea Republicans do not like.
The deal might include a mechanism to ensure Congress observes these cuts in coming years. Republicans want to cut spending automatically if it exceeds a level relative to the economy, while Democrats want to mandate tax increases or spending cuts if budget deficits exceed agreed-upon levels.
This is shaping up to be the most contentious area of the debate as Democrats insist a deficit deal cannot rely on spending cuts alone and Republicans say they will not back any deal that leads to a net increase in tax revenues.
With Congress unlikely to back higher tax rates, Democrats have proposed ending a range of tax breaks that reduce government revenues by roughly $400 billion a year.
Republicans say they are not necessarily opposed to ending tax breaks, as long as they are offset by tax cuts elsewhere or lower rates overall.
Tax breaks targeted by Democrats include:
- Limiting itemized deductions for the wealthy, which could bring in $293 billion in extra revenue over 10 years.
- Ending subsidies for ethanol producers. Senate Republicans have voted twice to end this break, which would save roughly $6 billion per year.
- Repealing tax breaks for big oil companies, which would save $45 billion.
- Imposing normal income-tax rates of up to 35 percent on hedge fund managers, who now pay the 15 percent capital-gains rate on their compensation, which they claim as “carried interest.” This would yield $20 billion.
- Repealing the “last in, first out” accounting method, which would raise $70 billion.
- Matching the depreciation schedule of corporate jets to the longer schedule that commercial airlines use. This only saves $3 billion but has taken on symbolic value.
Other tax provisions would actually worsen the budget picture but could surface as Democrats look for ways to stimulate the economy and Republicans look for measures that will allow them to say they are not backing a net increase in tax revenue.
- Extending a payroll tax cut that expires at the end of this year, which would cost $112 billion.
- Limiting the Alternative Minimum Tax, which would cost roughly $137 billion.
- Making permanent a tax credit for business research costs. This would cost roughly $100 billion.
- Give subsidies to emerging “clean energy” industries.
Other measures would not affect the tax code but could generate additional revenue for the government.
- Auctioning off underused electromagnetic frequencies.
- Selling excess property no longer needed by the government.
The government’s healthcare bill is projected to nearly double over the coming 10 years, driven by an aging population and medical costs that are outpacing inflation.
Republicans have proposed dramatic changes to the Medicare program for the elderly and the Medicaid program for the poor. Democrats say they will not agree to changes that reduce benefits but the two sides have agreed to relatively modest savings of $200 billion to $400 billion.
Budget experts say major changes to Medicare will be needed if negotiators are to reach their $4 trillion goal.
Possible savings include:
- Better coordinated coverage of “dual eligibles,” people qualifying for both Medicare and Medicaid, who account for a disproportionate amount of the government’s health spending.
- Requiring drug companies to offer the government a lower price for prescription drugs used by dual eligibles, which would save $49 billion through 2020.
- Reducing Medicare benefits for wealthy retirees who can afford their own health coverage. Many Democrats worry this could lead to an erosion of public support for the program.
- Changing the way the federal government provides Medicaid money to states that administer the program, rewarding those that spend the money more efficiently.
- Reducing medical fraud and overpayments.
- Limiting medical malpractice lawsuits.
The two sides are weighing a number of cuts in other benefit programs that would save roughly $500 billion. Among them:
- Changing the way inflation is measured to slow the growth of retirement benefits and tax deductions that are linked to the inflation rate. This could save up to $300 billion. Liberal interest groups fiercely oppose this idea, and it could be off the table now that negotiators have abandoned the notion of a larger deal.
- Scaling back retirement benefits for federal workers.
- Charging higher premiums to unstable companies whose benefits are backed by a federal insurance program.
- Reducing farm subsidies.
- Requiring graduate students to pay interest on their federal student loans.
Reporting by Andy Sullivan, Alister Bull and Richard Cowan