WASHINGTON — Talks among President Barack Obama and congressional leaders Sunday evening failed to break a partisan stalemate over how to raise the federal borrowing limit, leaving the politically charged negotiations in limbo with three weeks remaining before the administration says the country will begin to default.
The White House meeting adjourned after roughly 75 minutes without agreement over how far the parties should go in cutting the deficit over the next decade and whether tax cuts and entitlement reductions should be a part of any deal. Congressional leaders will return to the White House today to continue talks, administration officials announced, and Obama will hold a morning news conference before they do.
In negotiating position and public rhetoric, both sides appeared Sunday to dig further into their positions, leaving the talks deadlocked, a historic default looming and a fragile economy increasingly vulnerable to the consequences of Washington's entrenched partisanship and ideological divide over taxes and entitlements.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, jolted the negotiations over the weekend when he announced that his party would not support the larger deficit-cutting plan Obama has proposed because it includes tax increases, complicating the meeting's agenda before it began.
Obama asked GOP leaders: If not now, when? the Washington Post reported, citing a Democratic official familiar with the Sunday talks
The disagreement, drawn along partisan lines, brought warnings from the administration and congressional Democrats that, unless a deal is reached within the next two weeks — in order to give Congress time to approve it — the United States would default on its fiscal obligations.
Asked if the parties could reach a deal in the next 10 days, Obama, flanked by congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room before the meeting, said simply, "We need to."
The Post said the Democratic official said Obama, who began the session by recounting the nature of the compromise that had been under discussion before Boehner's weekend announcement, pushed for the larger plan throughout the meeting.
The Post reported that the official said Obama reminded Boehner that the speaker had admitted that a smaller deal could be just as difficult to push through Congress as a large one, and Obama challenged Republicans to return to the White House on today with a plan to secure the 218 votes needed for a measure to pass the House. Obama told the group to expect to meet daily until a deal is reached, said the official, who like others spoke to the Post on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private meeting.
Republican leaders, meanwhile, suggested that a "contingency plan" is in the works to raise the debt ceiling if the gulf between the parties could not be bridged. Obama has dismissed incremental steps, saying that now is the moment to address the underlying causes of fiscal imbalance.
After weeks of debate, Obama may now have a tenuous hold on the political high ground as he takes on a more visible role in urging party leaders to set aside ideology and programs important to each party's base in order to trim an estimated $4 trillion from the deficit over the next decade.
Obama's political strategy since his party's midterm election loss has been to portray himself as a reasonable man in partisan Washington, at times angering both Republicans and Democrats in doing so.
His proposal, which he has argued would bring certainty to an economy constrained by anxiety over the nation's fiscal condition, would involve spending cuts to agency budgets including the Pentagon's, ending the George W. Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, and changing entitlement programs in ways his party has traditionally opposed.
Lawmakers in both parties have refused to lift the $14.3 trillion debt limit unless the measure is accompanied by a strategy to sharply curtail borrowing over the next decade.
The budget request Obama submitted to Congress in February would have required about $9.5 trillion in fresh borrowing by 2021. Under his current proposal, the debt would continue to rise, by roughly $5 trillion over the next 10 years. It would stabilize, however, as a share of the nation's overall economy and eventually begin to fall by that measure.
"If they don't act, then we face catastrophic damage to the American economy, and the leadership, to their credit, and I mean Republicans and Democrats, fully understand that," Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press.
Boehner had been an enthusiastic partner in drafting such a deal.
But he is facing strong pressure not to accept any tax increase from a class of recalcitrant Republican House freshmen, as well as from some GOP presidential candidates, including Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who has vowed not to vote for any increase in the debt limit.
Republicans found themselves on the defensive Sunday after Boehner pulled the plug on talks with the White House, citing his conservative rank and file's opposition to the tax increases Obama is demanding in exchange for significant changes to federal entitlement programs.
Appearing on Fox News Sunday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called the White House proposal "a terrible idea" and "a job killer" at a time when the unemployment rate is rising.
After the meeting, Don Stewart, McConnell's deputy chief of staff for communications, said in a statement, "It's baffling that the president and his party continue to insist on massive tax hikes in the middle of a jobs crisis while refusing to take significant action on spending reductions at a time of record deficits."
The Republican position sent negotiators back to the drawing board. Boehner, for one, has suggested re-examining the smaller measure that had been under discussion in bipartisan talks led by Vice President Joe Biden. The approach aimed to cut borrowing by $2.4 trillion over the next decade, doing less than Obama's proposal to stabilize borrowing.