Deficit talks on life support

White House talks with centrist Senate Republicans on a deficit grand bargain are alive but on life support, according to several participants.

“It’s not even limping along,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said of the talks. “For that you would have to have a process in place.”

Corker acknowledged he talked with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough about raising the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling as recently as Saturday night, but said discussions have yet to get beyond the big picture.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) likewise said it would be a mistake to think the talks are over.

“The talks have never been dead. I talked to Denis last night,” Isakson told The Hill on Tuesday.

But he said the two sides remain focused on “macro issues,” and have moved no closer to specific solutions to reduce spending and raise the debt ceiling.

Time is running out for both sides.

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The government will need to raise the debt ceiling in October or November, according to the Treasury Department. At the end of September, the two sides face another deadline on funding the government. Without a deal, the government would shut down.

President Obama began a series of high-profile meetings with Senate Republicans on March 6 with a dinner at the ritzy Jefferson Hotel in downtown Washington.

It was followed by a second dinner at the White House a month later that included some different GOP participants.

Obama has also dined with the female members of the Senate, and has had private conversations with a handful of members.

But the pace of presidential meetings has slowed over the summer amid week-long congressional recesses for Memorial Day and July 4, and Obama’s own foreign trips to the G-8 summit and Africa.

Attention in the spring and summer turned to immigration reform, as the Senate approved a bipartisan bill providing a path to citizenship for the nation’s illegal immigrants. It faces an uncertain path in the House.

Corker and Isakson suggested the lack of meetings hides activity behind the scenes.

For example, McDonough on Saturday called Corker, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to discuss national security issues before the discussion turned to the debt ceiling.

McDonough and a coterie of White House officials including new budget director Sylvia Mathews Burwell discussed the deficit with Republicans on June 11. That meeting involved both sides sketching out how they see the problem, with several Republicans pushing for a long-term deal that tackles the future insolvency of Medicare and Social Security.

That meeting came about after several GOP senators publicly complained that the White House was not following through on the outreach campaign it started in March. 

Corker said he hopes the discussions can become more substantive before Congress heads out for the August recess.

“I know it’s July and we still have time,” Corker said. “The White House needs to decide to put a process in place.”

The two sides remain divided over how to lower the deficit, with the White House and Democrats calling for tax increases and Senate Republicans insisting on changes to Social Security and Medicare.

“I am not casting blame, but the nexus of what needs to happen is obvious: pro-growth tax reform and entitlement reform,” Corker said Tuesday.

The White House launched the talks with centrist GOP senators because McDonough and Obama saw it as the best hope of getting a deal, particularly after Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) announced he was done with one-on-one talks with Obama.

By reaching a deal that could pass the Senate, the White House hoped to build pressure on Boehner.

Senators said that the White House talks remain friendly but are just moving too slow to give them much hope.

“I’ve been to a few of the meetings and they haven’t yielded much,” Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) said. 

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