WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama and top U.S. lawmakers fell short on Monday of finding enough spending cuts for a deal to avoid an August 2 debt default and Republicans came under fresh pressure to agree to tax hikes.
The two sides achieved no breakthrough in a roughly 90-minute meeting and scheduled a third straight day of talks for Tuesday. This came after Obama, at a news conference, declared it is time for both Republicans and Democrats to “pull off the Band-aid, eat our peas” and make sacrifices.
“If not now, when?” Obama said.
Democrats familiar with the White House talks said that in the meeting, Democratic lawmakers indicated there would not be votes from their side for a deficit-reduction bill that only had spending cuts, as Republicans want.
They said Obama’s view was that without tax increases, the package would at best be little more than $1.5 trillion in deficit reduction, far short of the estimated $2 trillion needed to extend the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling through the end of 2012.
“It’s just the math,” one Democratic official told reporters. “You can’t get something through the United States House (of Representatives) without a significant number of Democrats.”
The Treasury Department has warned it will run out of money to cover the country’s bills if Congress does not increase its borrowing authority by August 2. Failure to act could push the United States back into recession, send shock waves through global markets and threaten the dollar’s reserve status.
U.S. stocks suffered their worst day in nearly a month on Monday mainly over investor concerns about the stalemate in Washington and growing debt problems in the euro zone.
While investors still consider it unlikely there will be no deal on the debt, the lack of resolution at a time of growing international concerns weighed on sentiment.
Obama discussed with the lawmakers a deficit-reduction plan negotiated by a group led by Vice President Joe Biden. The plan had included up to $2 trillion in spending cuts but fell apart over Democratic demands that it include an end to $400 billion in tax loopholes.
Democrats have fretted over proposed cuts to popular but expensive benefits programs for the poor and elderly, but House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, the top U.S. Republican, made clear in the talks that Republicans are not thrilled either at taking such a vote.
The comment prompted Obama to remind Republicans they had voted for a plan proposed by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan that would restructure Medicare and lead to deep cuts.
“Excuse us for trying to lead,” Boehner told Obama, according to a Republican congressional aide.
Boehner also took issue with Democrats’ suggestion that most of the spending cuts should be concentrated out into future years, rather than beginning right away.
Cantor proposed $250 billion in Medicare cuts without offering to close any tax loopholes for the rich, Democratic officials and aides said. Obama noted in response that his bottom line is the need for “shared sacrifice,” they said.
A Cantor aide said the proposed Medicare cuts were among possible reductions earlier cited by the Biden group. Democrats disagreed, saying their negotiators never agreed to the package outlined by Cantor.
At his news conference, Obama said he has “bent over backwards” to work with the Republicans to try to come up with a formulation that does not require them to vote sometime in the next month to increase taxes.
Obama said he has been trying to negotiate a proposal in which taxes would not go up immediately, but in later years.
“Nobody is looking to raise taxes right now. We’re talking about potentially 2013 and the out-years,” Obama said.
Obama used the latest in a series of White House news conferences to urge lawmakers on both sides to stop putting off the inevitable and agree to tax increases and cuts in popular entitlement programs, trying to persuade Americans he is the grownup in a bitter summer battle over spending and taxes.
Obama kept the pressure on for a deal by ruling out a short-term increase in the debt ceiling that some Republicans have proposed in order to buy more time to negotiate tougher issues.
“This is the United States of America, and we don’t manage our affairs in three-month increments,” he said.
Obama is seeking to cast himself as a centrist in the bitter debate. His 2012 re-election hopes hinge not only on reducing America’s 9.2 percent unemployment but on his appeal to independent voters who are increasingly turned off by partisan rancor in Washington and want tougher action to get the country’s fiscal house in order.
Republicans are adamantly opposed to raising taxes while Obama’s Democrats are equally determined to guard against cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the sacred cow pension and healthcare programs for the poor and elderly.
Obama said he is willing to accept some pain on his side but expects Republicans to move in his direction.
He wants a $4 trillion, 10-year deficit-reduction deal that Boehner walked away from on Saturday out of concern it would raise taxes.
“I’m prepared to take on significant heat from my party to get something done. And I expect the other side should be willing to do the same thing,” Obama said.
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Patricia Zengerle, Laura MacInnis, Kim Dixon, Deborah Charles, Jeff Mason in Washington and Angela Moon in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman