By David Jackson, USA TODAY
In addition to tax hikes and budget cuts, President Obama and the Republicans added another element Wednesday to the fiscal cliff standoff: The debt ceiling.
Obama, in a speech to business executives, warned Republicans not to let budget disputes affect the necessity of raising the debt ceiling next year.
"I will not play that game," Obama told the Business Roundtable, an organization of CEOs. "Because we've got to break that habit before it starts."
Obama was responding to reports that congressional Republicans might be willing to approve extensions of middle-class tax cuts now, then use a debt ceiling increase to leverage more spending cuts and other concessions from the administration.
The nation does not need a rerun of the 2011 debt ceiling dispute, Obama said, calling that incident a "catastrophe" that threatened a government default, and led to a downgrade in the nation's credit rating.
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said:"We agree there is no reason for drama surrounding a debt limit increase. All that is required is the President getting serious about spending cuts."
Obama's debt ceiling comments highlighted remarks in which he basically asked the CEOs to help him raise their taxes.
Higher tax rates on the "top 2%" of incomes will help the government raise more revenue, contributing to a "balanced" plan that also includes budget cuts in an effort to reduce a national debt that now tops $16 trillion.
"That includes all of you, yes," Obama told the CEOs, "but not in any way that's going to affect your spending, your lifestyles, or the economy in any significant way."
Republican opposition to higher tax rates on the wealthy is the main issue preventing an agreement, Obama said. With that "conceptual breakthrough," he said, "we can probably solve this in about a week; it's not that tough."
Obama devoted most of his remarks to summarizing the state of negotiations with Republicans designed to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, the series of tax increases and budget cuts that take effect in 2013 without a debt reduction agreement.
Boehner and other congressional Republicans say the higher rates will kill jobs and slow economic growth. They have proposed new revenues through the elimination of tax loopholes and deductions -- and noted on Wednesday that Obama once agreed with their approach.
The Republicans flagged an Obama quote from 2011 in which president said the government could raise as much as $1.2 trillion in new revenue over ten years without rate hikes, but by "eliminating loopholes, eliminating some deductions and engaging in a tax reform process that could have lowered rates generally while broadening the base."
White House officials said those comments were made in the context of overall tax reform, a process that would take months and extend well past the fiscal cliff deadline. "We're trying to pass something this month," said Jason Furman, principal deputy director of the National Economic Council.
GOP members also want Obama to be more specific about spending cuts, particularly on the fast-growing programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
"We have to do something about the spending," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. "An obsession to raise taxes is not going to solve the problem."
Republicans also called on Obama to sit down with them on these issues.Said Boehner: "We can't negotiate with ourselves."
When or if that includes the debt ceiling remains to be seen.
The debt ceiling is the maximum amount of money the government can borrowed to pay the debts it has incurred. The debt ceiling is nearly $16.4 trillion, and, at the current rate of government spending, will need to be raised early next year.
The Obama team has its own debt ceiling proposal, a plan used to settle the 2011 dispute. It gave Obama authority to raise the ceiling on his own, while the House or the Senate could pass resolutions of disapproval. Obama could veto any such resolution, forcing either the House or Senate to muster a two-thirds override vote in order to block the debt ceiling increase.
The White House calls it the "McConnell Provision," after its creator, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart says the administration has "amnesia" about the origins of that plan.
"The debt ceiling was raised last year only after the White House agreed to nearly $2 trillion in cuts to Washington spending, and agreed to be bound by the timing and amount set by Congress -- not his own whim," Stewart said.
Added Stewart: "The president wants to have the ability to raise the debt ceiling whenever he wants, for as much as he wants, with no responsibility or spending cuts attached. This is an idea opposed by Democrats and Republicans alike; it's a power grab that has no support here."