By Ian Swanson - 07/07/11 04:00 PM EDT
President Obama is expected to press congressional leaders at a White House meeting on Thursday to double down and push for a $4 trillion deficit-reduction package.
The White House has also signaled it wants to include savings from Social Security and Medicare in the package, a proposal that is already prompting criticism from some Democrats.
The move from Obama comes after a secret meeting the president held last weekend with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), as well as new signs of flexibility from Republicans on including new revenues as part of a package to reduce the deficit.
Obama earlier this week told lawmakers they faced a “unique opportunity” with talks to raise the debt ceiling and cut the deficit.
The signals of progress have prompted new optimism for the debt-ceiling talks, which face a deadline of Aug. 2, when the Treasury Department says it will no longer have the ability to pay the nation's bills. Economists warn this could lead to catastrophic effects on the economy, and business groups have pressed politicians to come together on a deal.
At the same time, the reports of flexibility from Obama and Boehner are provoking worries within their parties that their leaders will go too far in pursuit of a deal.
White House press secretary Jay Carney on Thursday sought to push back at a report in The Washington Post that the president would place Social Security on the table in the talks.
In a statement, Carney said Obama has always said the program needs to be strengthened but that it is not a major driver of the deficit.
“There is no news here,” Carney said.
The Post reported that Obama would press leaders to consider a far-reaching deal that would include major changes to Social Security and Medicare in exchange for Republican support for new tax revenue.
Several Democratic lawmakers, who for weeks have said Social Security should not be included in the talks, said they were dismayed to read about Obama’s offer in the press.
“We would have preferred to hear it from the president instead of from the press,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (Md.), a senior member of the Senate Democratic conference.
Their frustration is exacerbated by Obama’s snub of their invitation to speak to the Senate Democratic caucus Wednesday. Mikulski said Obama should not assume Democratic support for a deficit-reduction plan that cuts entitlements.
If Democrats are worried about Obama, some Republicans may be worried about Boehner, who according to a report in The New York Times indicated to Obama at last weekend's meeting that the GOP could consider as much as $1 trillion in unspecified new revenues as part of an overhaul of tax laws, in exchange for a deal to cut spending —including to entitlements.
Boehner said Thursday that comprehensive tax reform is “under discussion” but he reiterated the GOP’s blanket opposition to tax increases.
“Everything is on the table except raising taxes on the American people,” Boehner told reporters at the Capitol after meeting with the House Republican conference.
Boehner did not specifically shoot down the report, yet he and a group of other GOP leaders stepped to the microphone to reject tax hikes.
According to sources in the GOP conference meeting, Boehner seemed optimistic that a deal could be struck in the near future.
“[Boehner's] communicating that there is a possibility that something big could happen soon,” a high-ranking GOP official told The Hill.
“I think we have basically the skeletal outline of an agreement of what we can reach, but it takes the political will,” Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the second-ranking Senate Democrat, told Bloomberg television on Thursday. “We can do this, and we can do this on a bipartisan basis.”
Durbin said he’s ready to put Social Security and Medicare changes on the table, as long as any savings are used to shore up the entitlement.
“I will put Social Security on the table as long as several things are clear. Number one, any savings in Social Security goes to make Social Security stronger longer,” said Durbin, who cautioned that he was only speaking for himself.
Lawmakers have been looking at revising the way Social Security benefits are indexed for inflation, which could save money from the program. It is unclear whether Obama might consider broader changes, such as raising the age at which recipients are eligible for the program.
—This story was first posted at 11:39 p.m. Wednesday and was last updated at 12:00 p.m. on Thursday.
Russell Berman, Alexander Bolton, Ben Geman and Molly K. Hooper contributed to this story.