By Sam Youngman and Erik Wasson - 04/12/11 12:33 AM EDT
The White House sought to outflank the GOP Monday in the battle over the debt ceiling while playing up a speech President Obama is to give Wednesday on his new plans for tackling the deficit.
“We do not need to play chicken with our economy by linking the raising of the debt ceiling to anything,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said of Republicans as the White House turned up the rhetoric against the GOP.
The White House broadside showed an administration doubling down on its rhetoric during the spending fight, in which it sought to cast Republicans as irresponsible stewards for nearly causing a government shutdown. In that earlier fight, the White House also focused on the economic impact of the GOP’s actions.
Republicans countered Monday that they, and not the president, are leading the way on tackling the deficit.
Mocking Wednesday’s speech, they predicted the nation would hear a warmed-over defense of Obama’s 2012 budget proposal, which did not include serious entitlement reforms.
Republican congressional aides argued Obama is making the speech because he was “embarrassed politically” by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget, which would reduce spending over the next decade by $5.8 trillion, partly through significant changes to Medicare and Medicaid.
Ryan would balance the budget by 2040, while Obama’s 2012 blueprint would not balance the budget.
“There is no question that the leadership taken by House Republicans dramatically altered the landscape of the budget debate,” one GOP aide said.
White House officials largely declined to preview Obama’s speech, saying only that the president would make clear his commitment to significantly lowering the deficit and cutting government spending.
For now, Obama might be wary of laying out specific entitlement reforms, which would be guaranteed to alienate liberals while still not winning over the GOP. It could also rob Democrats of the ability to use Ryan’s new budget proposal as a political weapon.
By not calling for entitlement reforms in his State of the Union address or budget, Obama allowed the GOP to enter that debate first. He can now deliver a counterpunch, with Democrats hoping to showcase their own proposals as more reasonable than the steps endorsed by the GOP.
The speech, scheduled for early Wednesday afternoon at George Washington University, is Obama’s first effort since last week’s budget showdown to engage Republicans on spending and entitlement reform.
Republicans have repeatedly said Congress will not raise the debt ceiling unless the bill is tied to heavy spending cuts. Some Democrats, such as Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (N.D.), also want to use the debt-ceiling vote to force through a long-term debt package.
Carney did not say whether Obama would veto any attempts by House Republicans to tie spending cuts to the debt ceiling, but he said the president wants a “clean” piece of legislation.
The White House signaled Monday that Obama is hoping for two separate but concurrent debates — one on raising the debt ceiling and another on cutting spending.
To that end, Carney quoted Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who said earlier this year that not raising the debt limit would cause “financial disaster not only for our country, but for the worldwide economy.”
“We could not have said it better,” Carney said. “That is a vivid description of why this is such an important vote and why you cannot hold it hostage to something else.”
Obama’s speech also can be seen as a response to criticism that he was too often a bystander during the fight over spending. Sixty-four senators wrote to Obama last month asking that he take the lead in a bipartisan long-term deficit-reduction discussion.
It is unclear if the president will use his speech to call for new deficit-reduction targets compared to those in the fiscal 2012 budget. Doing so is dangerous, since the GOP is already alleging that it would be an admission that the budget was a “failure.”
There is irritation within the GOP that Obama waited for Ryan to move before showing his hand on entitlements.
One GOP aide said that if it had been Obama’s plan all along to wait until Ryan took the first step, the move was “incredibly cynical,” since it is the president’s responsibility to issue a budget proposal.
Ryan has been a bit more inviting, at least publicly. In response to the news of Obama’s speech, he said the door was open to talks.
“The president, having already put forward an irresponsible budget, has failed to lead on fixing our fiscal problems. But if he does choose to follow with serious proposals that address the drivers of our debt and the anchors holding back our economy, the door is open,” Ryan said in an emailed statement.