WASHINGTON – House Speaker John Boehner abruptly broke off talks with President Barack Obama Friday night on a deal to cut federal spending and avert a threatened government default, sending compromise efforts into an instant crisis.
Within minutes, an obviously peeved Obama virtually ordered congressional leaders to the White House for a Saturday meeting on raising the country’s debt limit. “We’ve got to get it done. It is not an option not to do it,” he declared.
For the first time since negotiations began, the president declined to offer assurances, when asked, that default would be avoided. Moments later, however, he said he was confident of that outcome.
Boehner, in a letter circulated to the House Republican rank and file, said he had withdrawn from the talks with Obama because “in the end, we couldn’t connect.” He announced he would now seek agreement with leaders of the Democratic-controlled Senate.
In a later press conference, the Republican House speaker accused Obama of “moving the goal posts” by demanding $400 billion in tax increases on top of about $800 billion in revenues that would have been reaped through a comprehensive rewrite of the tax code.
Obama was having none of that, announcing instead a morning White House meeting where he said he expected to hear proposed solutions from the top leaders of both parties in both houses.
“One of the questions the Republican Party is going to have to ask itself is, ‘Can they say yes to anything?”’ Obama said.
The president avoided direct criticism of Boehner, although he did mention that his phone calls to the speaker had gone unreturned during the day. One administration official said the president had tried to reach Boehner four times.
The private, sometimes-secret negotiations had veered uncertainly for weeks, generating reports as late as Thursday that the two sides were possibly closing in on an agreement to cut $3 trillion in spending and add as much as $1 trillion in possible revenue while increasing the government’s borrowing authority of $2.4 trillion.
That triggered a revolt among Democrats who expressed fears the president was giving away too much in terms of cuts to benefit programs for the elderly and poor while getting too little by way of additional revenues
Officials say a default could destabilize the already weakened U.S. economy and send major ripple effects across the globe. “Failing to raise the debt ceiling would do irreparable harm to our credit standing, would undermine our ability to lead on global economic issues and would damage our economy,” former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a Republican, told reporters during the day.
Current administration officials and Federal reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke have said much the same thing for weeks _ while gridlock persisted in Congress.
Obama said his only requirement for an agreement was legislation that provides the Treasury enough borrowing authority to tide the government over through the 2012 election.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, agreed in a written statement, saying a shorter-term extension was unacceptable.
His counterpart, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell supported Boehner for “insisting on reducing spending and opposing the president’s call for higher taxes on American families and job creators.”
Not for the first time, he said, “it’s time now for the debate to move out of a room in the White House and onto the House and Senate floors.”
Boehner; Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat; and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell are expected to be among the lawmakers at the White House meeting called by the president.