Biden Meets With Lawmakers To Discuss Debt

Originally published on May 5, 2011 5:09 pm
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

After the meeting, the vice president said they made some progress.

JOE BIDEN: This is an opening meeting where today had a chance to talk a little bit with each of my colleagues. We're going to lay down not a hard negotiating position, but let's make sure each of us understand what - where the other guy's coming from.

BLOCK: Mara, just a couple weeks ago, we were talking about negotiations to avoid a government shutdown. Tell us about this latest deadline on the debt ceiling.

MARA LIASSON: But there's a long-term debt and deficit problem, and Republicans are demanding action on that in return for their votes to raise the debt ceiling. And unlike the government shutdown, these negotiations can't go down to the last minute because the markets are going to react sooner than August 2 if they think the negotiations aren't going anywhere.

BLOCK: And what are the expectations here? What's likely to come out of these talks between the vice president and these six legislators?

LIASSON: We are not talking about a big deal on Medicare, on Social Security and tax reform. Here's how House Republican budget chair Paul Ryan put it at a Bloomberg breakfast on Wednesday.

PAUL RYAN: We're not going to get a grand-slam agreement. We're not going to get a big, comprehensive agreement because of just the political parameters that have been set now by our leader. So my hope at this moment is to get a single or a double.

LIASSON: The home run would be a resolution of all the big issues, entitlements and taxes. That is just going to have to wait. It'll be fought out in the 2012 election.

BLOCK: OK, so one group of six congresspeople meeting with the vice president today, not to be confused with the Gang of Six in the Senate, who have been driving toward a long-term deficit plan. What's their status, Mara?

LIASSON: But as you can imagine, they're coming under a lot of pressure. The three Democrats in the gang are under pressure not to move too far on Medicare or Social Security, the three Republicans under even more pressure not to do anything that would raise tax revenues.

BLOCK: And Mara, let's talk for just a minute about the politics of all this. Why don't you walk us through the forces that are at play here?

LIASSON: Now, Democrats might think they'll have a weaker hand after 2012, so why not make the best deal you can now? But many Democrats think they shouldn't compromise on Medicare now because it's a good issue for them, and they want to use it against the Republicans in 2012.

BLOCK: OK, NPR's Mara Liasson, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You are listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Here in Washington today, Vice President Joe Biden said he and a bipartisan group of six legislators made progress as they began to hammer out an agreement on how to handle the nation's colossal debt. They need a plan in order to win enough support in Congress to raise the legal limit on what the country can borrow - the debt ceiling.

Vice President JOE BIDEN: This is an opening meeting where today I had a chance to talk a little bit with each of my colleagues. We're going to lay down not a hard negotiating position, but let's make sure each of us understand what - where the other guy's coming from.

BLOCK: And joining us to talk about the talks is NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

Mara, just a couple weeks ago, we were talking about negotiations to avoid a government shutdown. Tell us about this latest deadline on the debt ceiling.

MARA LIASSON: Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner says that by August 2, the U.S. government is going to have borrowed all the money it is legally allowed to do. So Congress has to raise the debt ceiling. If it doesn't, the U.S. will default, creditors will lose faith in the United States, interest rates will shoot up. So it's a very big deal.

But there's a long-term debt and deficit problem, and Republicans are demanding action on that in return for their votes to raise the debt ceiling. And unlike the government shutdown, these negotiations can't go down to the last minute because the markets are going to react sooner than August 2 if they think the negotiations aren't going anywhere.

BLOCK: And what are the expectations here? What's likely to come out of these talks between the vice president and these six legislators?

LIASSON: Well, people are expecting a kind of down payment on reducing the deficit and the long-term debt, some immediate spending cuts but also a longer-term process with targets and triggers for automatic cuts if Congress misses the targets.

It's kind of like someone on a diet who makes a contract with Weight Watchers to swoop in and confiscate their cookies if the scales show that they're not losing what they promised to.

We are not talking about a big deal on Medicare, on Social Security and tax reform. Here's how House Republican budget chair Paul Ryan put it at a Bloomberg breakfast on Wednesday.

Representative PAUL RYAN (Republican, Wisconsin): We're not going to get a grand-slam agreement. We're not going to get a big, comprehensive agreement because of just the political parameters that have been set now by our leader. So my hope at this moment is to get a single or a double.

LIASSON: The home run would be a resolution of all the big issues, entitlements and taxes. That is just going to have to wait. It'll be fought out in the 2012 election.

BLOCK: OK, so one group of six Congress people meeting with the vice president today, not to be confused with the Gang of Six in the Senate, who have been driving toward a long-term deficit plan. What's their status, Mara?

LIASSON: They're still talking, but they're talking about more than a down payment. They want a comprehensive solution, including tax reform, reform of Medicare, Social Security, defense and domestic spending cuts. They're trying to write legislation to enact the recommendations of the president's deficit commission.

But as you can imagine, they're coming under a lot of pressure. The three Democrats in the gang are under pressure not to move too far on Medicare or Social Security, the three Republicans under even more pressure not to do anything that would raise tax revenues.

BLOCK: And Mara, let's talk for just a minute about the politics of all this. Why don't you walk us through the forces that are at play here?

LIASSON: Well, if you're a Republican, and you believe you'll be the majority in the Senate after 2012 - and, by the way, that's a widely held assumption. If you look at the map and the math, it's hard to see the Democrats hanging on to the majority there - then you want to wait on the big deficit deal. It's not in your interest to compromise now on taxes or Medicare because you'll be able to make a better deal for yourself after 2012.

Now, Democrats might think they'll have a weaker hand after 2012, so why not make the best deal you can now? But many Democrats think they shouldn't compromise on Medicare now because it's a good issue for them, and they want to use it against the Republicans in 2012.

BLOCK: OK, NPR's Mara Liasson, thanks so much.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.