Obama and G.O.P. Stake Out Positions in Deficit Battle

John Boehner

Both he and Speaker John A. Boehner put down their respective markers this week, suggesting a potential replay of their damaging showdown over the debt ceiling last summer. On Tuesday, the speaker reiterated what has become known as the Boehner Rule: House Republicans will not increase the debt ceiling again without spending cuts of a greater amount. Mr. Obama, on Wednesday, told him Congress must pass a “clean” debt-limit increase to cover the nation’s obligations; there will be no more deficit deals, he said, without higher tax revenues from the wealthiest Americans.

While the Republicans largely prevailed last year, this time the Obama administration believes it has the greater leverage. The pain of the reductions is being felt as House Republicans advance the annual spending bills; already they have proposed to raise the spending caps for the military, and they are squabbling over domestic programs.

“It’s not reasonable or right for there to be another discussion of a spending-only package” for reducing deficits, said Jacob J. Lew, the White House chief of staff and former budget director. “When you look at how we got into the hole we’re in, it’s very clear that tax cuts for the wealthy were part of contributing to the deficits we’re now trying to close.”

Mr. Obama’s position leaves open the question of whether election-year politics will play to his advantage among voters who do not like deficits or the measures needed to reduce them. Neither party expects the fight to be resolved until after the election, the results of which will determine who actually has the upper hand in a lame-duck Congress. The debt limit must be raised by early 2013, Treasury has said.

The two budget deals last year — the deficit-reduction compromise in August and a smaller agreement before that — called for cutting $1.7 trillion from so-called discretionary spending, which covers the bulk of federal programs whose budgets Congress controls annually, including air-traffic control, the military, education, research and much more.

Those deals left unscathed the entitlement programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, which, given the growing aging population, are driving projections of unsustainable deficits.

And those deals, because of Republicans’ resistance, did not raise taxes, unlike the deficit measures of the 1980s and 1990s.

“Tax hikes destroy jobs,” Mr. Boehner said in his speech on Tuesday.

But veterans of past budget wars say that discretionary spending for domestic programs, which make up just 15 percent of the federal budget, cannot continue to bear the brunt without significant implications for government services. “They’ve gone way past fat and are cutting into muscle,” said Bruce R. Bartlett, who was a Treasury official in the Reagan administration.

Nor, these people say, would the public support the deeper reductions that would have to be made in programs like Medicare if taxes are not part of the mix.

“That’s basically why I, and a very large number of other people, conclude that you do need some additional revenues,” said Rudolph G. Penner, a Republican who headed the Congressional Budget Office in the 1980s and was co-chairman in 2010 of a blue-ribbon panel that proposed a debt-reduction plan.

“I’ve been kind of surprised at these recent agreements, where almost all of the reduction comes from discretionary programs over 10 years,” he said. “What you’re talking about is a very large number of years of austerity — through various Congresses, elections and possible natural disasters and terrorist attacks and on and on, which is just not plausible to me.”

Barry Anderson, a former deputy director of the White House and Congressional budget offices, said, “Eventually you’re going to have to increase taxes across the board” — not just for the wealthy — “by at least a third.”

Former Senator Pete V. Domenici, who was the chairman or senior Republican leader on the Senate Budget Committee from 1981 to 2007, said in an interview, “Adequate projections of revenues and expenditures have to be put on the table. Everything has to be on the table.”

Senator Domenici, with Alice Rivlin, a former budget director for Congress and the Clinton administration, was chairman of a panel in 2010 of former lawmakers, administration officials, academics and executives, that produced a blueprint for debt reduction. It came just before a roughly similar plan from a majority on Mr. Obama’s fiscal commission, which was led by Alan K. Simpson, a former Senate Republican leader, and Erskine B. Bowles, a businessman and former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.

All three recent debt proposals — Bowles-Simpson, Domenici-Rivlin and that of Mr. Penner’s group, sponsored by the National Research Council and the National Academy of Public Administration — recommended trillions of dollars in savings, both from higher taxes and reduced entitlement spending. Yet it is those two sources that the White House and Congress have avoided, given Republicans’ opposition to tax increases and Democrats’ to cutting Medicare unless taxes are raised.

Tax increases were part of nearly every significant deficit-reduction measure of the 1980s and 1990s, including the 1982, 1984 and 1987 packages signed by Ronald Reagan, the 1990 accord under George H.W. Bush and Mr. Clinton’s 1993 measure. The exception was a deal in 1997, though by that agreement Congressional Republicans ratified Mr. Clinton’s 1993 tax increases that they had vowed to repeal.

Mr. Obama’s chief of staff, Mr. Lew, participated in most of those deals, as an aide to House Democratic leaders and then as Mr. Clinton’s budget director.

“The history of dealing with big problems like this is, almost in every case, it’s been a balanced package” of taxes and cuts in both discretionary and entitlement spending, Mr. Lew said. “So it’s not like it is some radical Democratic position.”

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