- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 2011

The high-stakes negotiations over the country’s long-term debt problems kicked into another gear Monday as President Obama met separately with the Senate’s two top leaders in hopes of jump-starting a deal.

As the meetings unfolded, the White House dismissed criticisms that the president has been slow to get personally involved.

Press secretary Jay Carney said it was “nuts” to think that everyday Americans care whether Mr. Obama is deeply involved in each and every meeting with congressional leaders, especially as he was making up his mind about the scope of a troop withdrawal in Afghanistan.

Mr. Carney said the White House is confident that a deal will be reached - even after Republicans pulled out of the talks led by Vice President Joseph R. Biden last week - despite a lack of concrete signs that both sides are nearing agreement on how to achieve significant deficit cuts while raising the nation’s borrowing limit before the Treasury Department’s Aug. 2 deadline.

“There is a lot of reason to be optimistic,” Mr. Carney told reporters. “We believe that it’s not only in each side’s political interest, but most importantly, it’s in the country’s economic interest and in the people’s interest.”

Mr. Obama met separately with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. Neither of the senators nor the White House provided specifics about the talks afterward.

Mr. Reid called his meeting “productive” while warning Republicans of playing politics with such a critical issue.

“I hope my Republican colleagues will put the economy ahead of politics … and set aside their desire to please the tea party and defeat President Obama,” Mr. Reid said on the Senate floor after his White House visit. “Neither party should confront this crisis alone.”

Mr. McConnell, meanwhile, insisted Democrats drop their demands that tax increases be included in a deal.

“I will tell [Mr. Obama] what Republicans are looking for in this debate: to cut spending now, cap runaway spending in the future, save our entitlements from bankruptcy and to get our economy moving,” he said before meeting with the president.

No additional debt limit meetings between the White House and the senators have been announced, though a McConnell spokesman said the senator and the president will continue talking.

Also attending Monday’s meetings was Mr. Biden, who has been leading debt limit discussions with a six-member bipartisan congressional delegation. Those talks broke down Thursday when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Virginia Republican, walked out after he complained that Democrats refused to take tax increases off the table.

Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona, the only other Republican in the group, said the weeks of negotiations the lawmakers held with Mr. Biden weren’t a waste.

“We’ve moved from one discussion to another,” he told reporters at the Capitol Monday. “That’s not to say the work we did won’t ultimately, at least in part, be part of an agreement. And we may have to go back and nail it down, so to speak.”

Mr. Carney took specific aim at House Republicans, saying their proposal for reducing the deficit without any tax increases represented an unbalanced approach.

He also took on critics who accused Mr. Obama of being too hands-off on the debt showdown.

“I think that’s nuts,” Mr. Carney said, dismissing complaints that “10 people might be hearing on cable news.”

All sides of the debate stress a need to increase the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling - the legal limit the federal government can borrow money to pay for its operations and debt obligations - before the Treasury Department’s Aug. 2 deadline.

Exceeding the limit could lead to a U.S. default on its loans, a scenario that would damage the nation’s credit rating and could trigger another financial crisis.

Mr. Kyl said that while a deal probably doesn’t need to be reached by the end of the week, “it needs to be moving” in that direction.

“It will take time, both to reach an agreement and put it all together, and to debate it on the [House and Senate] floor,” Mr. Kyl said. “Nobody wants this to be just parachuted in three days before they vote on it.”

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