By Alexander Bolton - 08/01/13 09:00 AM EDT
President Obama put Republicans on notice Wednesday that he will reject any fiscal deal that only spares the Pentagon from budget cuts.
Seeking party unity, Obama met with congressional Democrats in both chambers to prepare them for the budget battle that will greet them in the fall.
His message was unequivocal: no negotiating with Republicans on a debt-ceiling increase and no reductions in the sequester cuts to defense unless domestic programs are spared as well.
The meetings took place shortly before White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors met with a group of Senate Republicans to discuss the possibility of a deficit-reduction deal later this year.
Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.), the leaders of the GOP group, want to relieve defense programs from tens of billions of dollars in cuts.
But Obama made clear there’s no deal to be had unless Republicans agree to boost funding for other domestic programs that have fallen victim to the sequester’s ax.
The president told Democrats that stimulating the economy should take priority over reducing the deficit. He argued that even as the federal deficit has dropped faster than projected, unemployment has remained stubbornly high.
“Yes, acknowledge the role of public debt, but the public debt is coming down. What is not coming down as fast as we want is the unemployment,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Obama gave lawmakers a sneak preview of what he would talk about while he travels the country in the coming weeks.
“We talked about his message on the road, his whole ideas of jobs, education, a secure environment and implementing ObamaCare,” Mikulski added.
White House aides passed out cards inscribed with the president’s August message. Entitled “A Better Bargain for the Middle Class,” it touted a five-point plan for job creation, education, mortgage accessibility, retirement security and affordable healthcare.
Democrats said there is broad support within their caucuses for the president’s tough negotiating approach.
“We’re not giving in on the debt-limit issue,” Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) said.
Obama’s entrenched position sets up a bruising budget fight when Congress returns to work in September.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) has worked hard this week to whip his colleagues to vote against the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development bill because its spending levels do not reflect the automatic cuts known as sequestration.
House Republicans have crafted spending bills that restore funding to defense programs by making cuts to domestic programs. Obama made clear Wednesday those bills would face staunch Democratic resistance.
House Republicans suffered a setback Wednesday when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) pulled his chamber’s version of the transportation spending bill off the floor.
Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said the outcome shows that the lower chamber is not willing to accept steep cuts to domestic programs to shore up defense.
Rogers cautioned, however, that Congress is also unlikely to approve the higher spending levels advocated by the Senate.
Raising the debt limit promises to be another nasty fight. Conservative Senate Republicans say they will not agree to extend the country’s borrowing authority unless Obama signs off on a plan putting the federal budget on a path to balance over the next decade.
Obama rejected that demand in Wednesday’s meeting.
Some Democrats said leaders should not postpone the budget showdown to the fall, when limited time is likely to force a round of intense brinkmanship.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said Congress should skip its August recess.
“We haven’t got a budget deal. We don’t have appropriations bills for the next fiscal year. We’ve got this crazy word called ‘sequestration,’ ” Warner said in an interview on MSNBC. “We ought to stay here and do our work.”
Lawmakers used the rare meeting with Obama to raise other issues.
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) suggested that Obama assign his vaunted political analytics team, which helped him win reelection in 2012, to solving the backlog of cases at the Department of Veterans Affairs, according to Democrats familiar with the meeting. Obama suggested she get in touch with his chief of staff.
Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who faces a difficult reelection next year, grilled Obama on his administration’s handling of permitting for the Keystone XL pipeline, according to senators who attended.
Landrieu noted that more than 60 senators support the pipeline’s approval and asked why the administration hasn’t given it a green light yet.
Obama remained noncommittal on the controversial pipeline and played down projections that it could have a dramatic effect on the economy.
“He was very careful about not telegraphing his decision,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said. “But he showed a healthy skepticism about the exaggerated economic arguments supporting it.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said Obama, anticipating the concerns of senators, raised the touchy subject of the National Security Agency’s surveillance of U.S. citizens.
Obama emphasized that there have not been any instances of the spy agency abusing its power or intruding on privacy without justification. Offering an olive branch to his Senate critics, he proposed meeting with them to discuss the programs in detail.
— Mike Lillis and Erik Wasson contributed to this report.