Obama and Boehner take debt-ceiling fight to the public in prime time

President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) clashed in dueling prime-time speeches as Obama warned against Boehner’s proposal for a short-term increase in the debt ceiling.

Obama, in an address to the nation, said Boehner’s plan “would force us to once again face the threat of default just six months from now. In other words, it doesn’t solve the problem.”

The president called for compromise on the debt ceiling and deficit reduction, singling out House Republicans who have opposed what he called “a balanced approach” to the debt crisis.

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“The American people may have voted for divided government, but they didn’t vote for a dysfunctional government,” the president said. “So I’m asking you all to make your voice heard. If you want a balanced approach to reducing the deficit, let your member of Congress know. If you believe we can solve this problem through compromise, send that message.”

Obama spoke just over a week before the nation hits the Aug. 2 deadline for a federal default, as Washington neared the climactic moment that both Democratic and Republican leaders had for months sought to avoid.

In an illustration of the lingering partisan divide, Boehner delivered a rare, formal rebuttal to the president’s address.

Boehner accused Obama of creating the crisis atmosphere surrounding the debt limit and argued for his own plan, saying he expected it could pass the Senate.

“The president wanted a blank check six months ago, and he wants a blank check today,” Boehner said. “That is not going to happen.”

Earlier Monday, the Speaker unveiled his new proposal for a limited increase to the debt limit that drew immediate opposition from Democrats and skepticism from within his own Republican ranks.

The proposal, which Boehner presented to the House Republican Conference on Monday, would raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling by up to $1 trillion while conditioning a future increase on enactment of a $1.8 trillion deficit-reduction package and a congressional vote on a balanced-budget amendment. Boehner said his plan was “less than perfect” but addressed the current debt crisis and held to the principles of the more far-reaching “cut, cap and balance” legislation House Republicans passed last week.

“This legislation reflects a bipartisan negotiation over the weekend with our colleagues in the Senate, and as a result of this bipartisan negotiation I would call this plan less than perfect,” Boehner said at a press conference.

The White House and leading Democrats dismissed Boehner’s plan as a short-term solution that would prolong uncertainty. As the Speaker made his pitch to the House GOP, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) announced a rival plan that would contain $2.7 trillion in budget savings and lift the debt ceiling through 2012 — meeting a condition set by Obama. Boehner said Reid’s plan was “full of gimmicks.”

The competing proposals from both sides of the Capitol set up a risky confrontation just a week before the federal government could default on its debt, prompting the president to schedule his national address.

After Boehner unveiled his plan with a six-page PowerPoint presentation, several House Republicans emerged from a closed-door conference meeting refusing to back the proposal until they saw legislative text, which was not expected to be released until late Monday night.

A number of conservatives panned it immediately, including Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who heads the Republican Study Committee that comprises nearly two-thirds of the GOP conference. “While I thank the Speaker for fighting for Republican principles, I cannot support the plan that was presented to House Republicans this afternoon,” Jordan said in a statement that was issued after he stood uncomfortably behind Boehner at his press conference announcing the plan.

Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) also announced their opposition, as did the conservative Heritage Action organization.

Asked if he could secure enough Republican votes to pass the legislation, Boehner awkwardly deferred to Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the party’s vote-counter.

McCarthy offered no guarantees.

“We have just laid it out to our members,” he said. “We believe we laid out the position that we would not raise it if we did not have cuts and we would not have tax increases. Those are our principles, and that’s what we are doing.”

McCarthy noted that five Democrats voted for the GOP’s “cut, cap and balance” bill, and he encouraged them to do so again.

If enough conservatives oppose Boehner, he would need Democratic votes to pass the bill. Boehner’s plan is supported by other members of GOP leadership, and by Grover Norquist, the influential anti-tax activist. Boehner’s plan includes no new taxes.

The plan would guarantee $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years and includes a discretionary spending cap that would trigger automatic cuts if it were breached. The proposal requires that both the House and Senate vote on a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution between Oct. 1 and the end of 2011, giving supporters time to build broader support for the measure, which requires a two-thirds majority in each chamber.

The Boehner plan also creates a “Joint Committee of Congress” that would comprise 12 members and be required to report legislation by Nov. 23 with $1.8 trillion in additional deficit reduction. The committee’s bill would get an up-or-down vote in both the House and Senate, and only if Congress passed its recommendation would the president be allowed to request another $1.6 trillion in added debt.

The president's request would be subject to a vote of disapproval in Congress, a similarity to a proposal floated by Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) earlier this month.

The House could vote on the plan as early as Wednesday.

Lawmakers said House Republicans voiced concerns about the new committee and the fact that only a vote, and not congressional passage, would be required on the balanced-budget amendment.

“That is a very legitimate concern,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) told reporters following the meeting, referring to the proposed committee.

Others said they would wait to see the complete legislation before deciding.

“We’re not just running and gunning with this thing,” Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) said. Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Jeff Landry (R-La.) and Scott Rigell (R-Va.) all said that they would have to study the plan further before committing to support it.

Rigell said that he would be looking closely at the level of discretionary cuts for 2012, since he does not trust cuts will be made down the road. But he also signaled he would be open to only requiring a vote on the balanced-budget amendment, rather than full passage.

Scott said that leadership explained in the meeting that is difficult to require passage of the balanced-budget amendment, but he said he does not know yet whether he can support a debt-ceiling increase that does not require passage of a constitutional amendment.

Democrats didn’t receive the Boehner plan any more favorably. Reid said a two-stage proposal is “a nonstarter” in the Senate. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement: “The latest proposal from the House Republicans is a short-term plan that burdens the middle class and seniors, and continues this debate about whether we will default in a few months from now.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, called the Boehner proposal “a dangerous, reckless path.”

Molly K. Hooper contributed.

—This story was updated at 9:47 p.m.