Obama and Republicans Clash on Debt Ceiling

John Boehner

During a lunch of hoagie sandwiches at the White House that was supposed to be about urging Congress to act on proposals to spur the economy, Mr. Obama and the House speaker, John A. Boehner, clashed again over the debt ceiling. Mr. Boehner initiated the hostilities on Tuesday, when he appeared to signal that he wanted to start scrapping over the debt ceiling this summer, in the middle of the election campaign, instead of at year’s end, when the country will again need to raise the borrowing limit.

Mr. Boehner stood by his position at the White House, an aide said, telling the president that “as long as I’m around here, I’m not going to allow a debt ceiling increase without doing something serious about the debt.”

The president and his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill were talking tough, too. “The president made clear that we’re not going to recreate the debt ceiling debacle of last August,” said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary. He added, “It is simply not acceptable to hold the American and global economy hostage to one party’s political ideology.”

Last summer, House Republicans balked at raising the debt ceiling without deep spending cuts, an impasse that led to the lowering of the country’s debt rating from Standard Poor’s. After weeks of drama, the White House and Congress reached an agreement that raised the debt ceiling until, most likely, the end of this year, after the November elections.

But some people seem ready to start fighting now. Mitt Romney, the likely Republican presidential nominee, joined the fray on Wednesday, accusing Mr. Obama of not doing enough to rein in the country’s $1 trillion budget deficit, even after Mr. Obama criticized President George W. Bush as having run up the deficit. Mr. Romney told the audience at a campaign event in St. Petersburg, Fla., “I find it incomprehensible that a president could come to office and call his predecessor’s record irresponsible and unpatriotic, and then do almost nothing to fix it and instead every year to add more and more and more spending.”

While the tough talk may help shore up support for Mr. Romney among Tea Party conservatives, it could also alienate independent and moderate voters unhappy with Congress’s handling of the debt ceiling fight last year. A New York Times/CBS News poll last August found that 47 percent laid the blame for the debt ceiling fight on Congressional Republicans, while only 29 percent blamed Mr. Obama or the Democrats.

On Wednesday, Congressional Democrats were not running from the fight either. An aide to Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, said that Mr. Reid reminded Mr. Boehner and Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, that “absent a balanced agreement that pairs smart spending cuts with revenue measures asking millionaires to pay their fair share, the debt will be dealt with through the sequester.” That is a reference to a previous agreement that would automatically cut $1.2 trillion in spending, with half taken out of military spending and half from domestic spending.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, engineered a daylong debate on Wednesday intended to highlight the Democratic majority’s failure for the third straight year to produce a budget blueprint — and to embarrass Mr. Obama by bringing his budget to a vote. A procedural motion to proceed to the Obama budget failed, 99 to 0.

The lunch meeting on Wednesday was intended to be a chance for Mr. Obama to take advantage of presidential prerogative to invite lawmakers to the White House, and to hawk his “to-do list” of proposals he would like to see Congress enact this year.

The president wants Congress to approve a proposal to help small businesses that hire additional workers, and to look for ways to hire more veterans. “Too many folks are still out of work,” he said in an appearance with small-business owners at a deli in Washington before the lunch. “We’ve got some headwinds, the situation in Europe, and still a difficult housing market.”

“So my message to Congress, and I’m going to have a chance to see the Congressional leadership when I get back to the White House — I’m going to offer them some hoagies while they’re there — is let’s go ahead and act to help build and sustain momentum for our economy,” the president said.

Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.

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