Obama, Boehner Duel on the Airwaves

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The president and the speaker reiterated their stances before a national audience, as time winds down on the Treasury's Aug. 2 deadline

President Obama warned the nation on Monday night that those who are blocking an increase in the federal debt ceiling are risking "a deep economic crisis," while House Speaker John Boehner shot back immediately, telling the president "not so fast" as Washington's high-stakes debt showdown reached a new and ominous level with neither side blinking less than eight days before the deadline arrives.

The president, speaking from the East Room of the White House, was stern and somber as he sought once again to persuade the country - and more specifically the Republicans who rule the House - that the full faith and credit of the United States should not be held hostage to political demands.

Repeatedly, the president used the words "danger" or "dangerous" to hammer home that this is not just another Washington political spat but one that could slow job creation, raise interest rates, and shake global faith in the U.S. economy.

In turn, the speaker played down the consequences, laying the crisis solely at the feet of the president and saying all he has to do to end it is embrace the GOP bill in the House. "If the president signs it, the crisis atmosphere he has created will simply disappear."

But Obama made clear he is not about to surrender to Republican demands. "There are still paths forward," he declared. But one of them is not Boehner's preferred bill. His preferred path now that more ambitious grand bargains have been shot down is a plan backed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. In his speech, he called that "a plan to avoid default, which makes a down payment on deficit reduction and ensures that we don't have to go through this again in six months."

He said he has told congressional leaders "that they must come up with a fair compromise in the next few days." If they fail, the consequences are dire, he said. But the president didn't seem optimistic that his words would sway Republicans - the very reason he asked for the prime time broadcast, in the hopes he could go over the heads of Congress and appeal to the country.

"Unfortunately, for the past several weeks," Obama said, "Republican House members have essentially said that the only way they'll vote to prevent America's first-ever default is if the rest of us agree to their deep, spending cuts-only approach. If that happens, and we default, we would not have enough money to pay all of our bills - bills that include monthly Social Security checks, veterans' benefits, and the government contracts we've signed with thousands of businesses."

This would be historic and catastrophic, said the president. "For the first time in history, our country's Triple A credit rating would be downgraded, leaving investors around the world to wonder whether the United States is still a good bet. Interest rates would skyrocket on credit cards, mortgages, and car loans, which amounts to a huge tax hike on the American people."

Ominously, he said, "We would risk sparking a deep economic crisis - one caused almost entirely by Washington."

A default, Obama warned, would be "a reckless and irresponsible outcome to this debate."

The president derided Boehner's legislation requiring the issue to be revisited in only six months, saying that would likely shake faith on the part of investors. It would, he said, "force us to once again face the threat of default just six months from now. In other words, it doesn't solve the problem."

Imploring both parties to forge a last-minute compromise, Obama warned "the entire world is watching."

The stakes of the debt crisis were clear from the unusual drama of the night's staging. It is not unusual for the opposition party to present a rebuttal following a presidential address. It is unusual, though, for there to be so much attention paid to the opposition remarks or for the response to be live. The last time that happened was 2007. But there was Boehner, starting his speech only two minutes after the president departed the East Room. And there was the sense that Boehner, remarkably, would have as much say as the president in how the final act plays out.

The president's embrace of Reid's plan, which would cut $2.7 trillion in spending without any of the revenue increases once demanded by the White House, was signaled earlier in the day by Press Secretary Jay Carney. But it has been dismissed by Boehner as "full of gimmicks" and has little support from Republicans in the House.

Boehner instead is promoting a two-step plan to cut $900 billion in spending right away while raising the debt ceiling for only six months. That would require a second debt ceiling debate and vote right in the heart of the 2012 presidential election - exactly what Obama wanted to avoid. The president has argued that staging such a debate in the middle of a national campaign guarantees positions will be hardened and compromises will be more difficult to forge.

In a statement, Carney called the Boehner plan a "my way or the highway, short-term approach." He called Reid's proposal "a responsible compromise that cuts spending in a way that protects critical investments and does not harm the economic recovery."

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George E. Condon Jr.

George E. Condon Jr is a staff writer (White House) with National Journal.

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