White House mum on debt talks, meeting with Speaker Boehner

The White House has gone hush-hush over a meeting President Obama reportedly held last weekend with Speaker John Boehner, refusing to confirm whether it happened.

Though administration officials have repeatedly talked of running the most transparent White House in history, they argue announcing, confirming or discussing meetings like the one Obama is said to have had with Boehner (R-Ohio) could blow up a deal over raising the debt ceiling.

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In comments Tuesday at the White House Briefing Room, Obama promised to keep updating the American people on his negotiations with congressional leaders, which he said had taken place over the weekend.

But White House press secretary Jay Carney on Wednesday refused to confirm that Obama and Boehner had spoken face-to-face. He also said no specifics would be forthcoming from his office.

“The general fact that the president stated yesterday is true, that he and senior members of his staff had conversations and meetings with congressional leaders over the weekend to discuss ongoing progress in these budget negotiations, or rather deficit-cutting negotiations,” Carney said.

“But we’re not going to get into specific meetings, or read them out, or preview them, because we believe that is the right approach to increase our chances of reaching an agreement.”

Sunday’s meeting was at least the second time Obama and Boehner have come together to quietly discuss the debt-ceiling talks. The first occurred two weeks ago, just before Republicans walked out of talks led by Vice President Biden.

House Democrats largely excluded from the year’s earlier budget battles say they aren’t unnerved by the Obama-Boehner meetings. 

They expressed confidence that they’ll hold much greater sway over legislation to raise the debt limit, saying Boehner will not be able to move a measure without Democratic support.

“They will need Democratic votes like me,” Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) told The Hill on Wednesday. “And we’re not going to do it at any price.”

Other House Democrats described the meeting as “just part of the process.” 

“If that’s what it takes to get an agreement, I don’t have a problem with that,” said Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), who characterized Obama as a mediator trying to end an impasse by pulling the parties aside separately.

Dozens of Republicans are expected to vote against a package to raise the nation’s debt ceiling no matter the deficit-reduction package attached, meaning Boehner will need Democrats to make up for GOP defections. 

Such leverage is uncommon for the minority party in the House, and Democrats are using it to push back hard against safety-net cuts, as well as GOP demands that the package exclude new revenues.

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said Wednesday that he’s ready to whip Democratic votes to get the bill over the finish line — but for a price. 

“I’ve told Mr. Boehner that I will help,” Hoyer said, but “I’m not going to help on some draconian, do-it-my-way-or-the-highway vote. … Revenues need to be a significant part of it.”

There are signs that Republicans realize they’ll need some Democratic votes. 

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) on Wednesday suggested Republicans might be open to the elimination of certain tax loopholes if the new revenues go toward lowering taxes elsewhere.

“If the president wants to talk loopholes,” Cantor said, “we’ll talk loopholes.” 

Obama will meet Thursday at the White House with the top two leaders from both parties in the House and Senate, including Boehner and Hoyer, but Carney predicted a final deal wouldn’t emerge from that meeting.

He also suggested there could be future gatherings that might not include all of the principals at Thursday’s meeting. 

“I don’t anticipate any final decision or deal — no — to be reached tomorrow,” Carney said. “I would certainly be happy to be surprised, if I’m wrong. But I think this is going to require further meetings, maybe not necessarily of this group but — potentially of this group — but this is part of a process that will continue beyond tomorrow.”

Such comments could irritate House Democrats, who have been stewing for months after the president ignored their concerns and cut a December deal with Senate Republicans to extend the George W. Bush-era tax rates, including to the wealthiest Americans. 

Carney dismissed suggestions that White House recalcitrance to discussing whom Obama is meeting in the debt talks could hurt the president, saying the public is far more interested in a deal than the details of who is meeting with the president.

“What I’m saying is that if you can find people out in America who would rather know the content of an individual meeting the president may or may not have had with a member of Congress than an actual accomplishment from Washington, I’ll buy you lunch,” Carney said.

This story was originally published at 1:21 p.m. and updated at 8:23 p.m.