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Obama Sends Signals To Debt Committee To Act


And as Ari said just a moment ago, President Obama will be back in Washington just before that supercommittee's deadline. Before the president left for Hawaii, he picked up the phone and made calls to both the Democratic and Republican chairs of the group.

To talk about that and more, let's turn now to NPR's Cokie Roberts. Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Let's start with what those phone calls were about.

ROBERTS: Well, the president was apparently trying to dispel the notion that he didn't - that he was hoping the committee would not come to an agreement; that that was politically working for him.

The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, was inferring that - saying that the president, you know, wants to run against a do-nothing Congress, a la Harry Truman, and that if he - if the committee actually came to some agreement, that that would ruin the president's story line.

So I think that there was some feeling in the White House that he had to say he really was behind the committee acting. They either had to come up with a deal and had to stay with the original plan; that if they don't come up with a deal, that there will be across-the-board cuts in spending, and that any attempt to get out of that agreement was unacceptable to him.

It's the strongest signal he has sent, that the committee needs to act. And as I say, it came as he was getting criticized for being too hands-off about the negotiations, as Ari said.

MONTAGNE: Well, there is so much pessimism about them coming up with a deal. Is there any reason to think the committee can actually come up with a deficit plan that everyone on the committee can agree on?

ROBERTS: It's really hard to see that they can do that, but the various members of the committee were out yesterday on Sunday talk shows, and holding out some hope. They've only got, you know, nine days left. They feel like they've gotten a lot of the paperwork done. And one of the things going for an agreement is that the public distrust and disgust with Congress is so high that it's now really in all of their interests to produce something.

The other is that the economic situation was precarious enough when the supercommittee was formed - as you recall, Renee - during all of that debt-ceiling negotiation. And now we're dealing with the European debt crisis, and the concern about the world economy is spreading.

So, you know, Republicans who might have wanted to keep the economy bad to skewer the Democrats are now worried it could affect them, and it could affect some of their key constituents. And they're not so sanguine about just letting it get worse. And Democrats who wanted to just - sort of demagogue against Republicans on Medicare cuts are worried it might all backfire.

MONTAGNE: Well, if the supercommittee comes up with a plan, Cokie, what is your sense of whether – it sounds like there's some possibility, though, that members could sell it to Congress as a whole?

ROBERTS: That's a really – that's a big problem, and it works against their coming up with a plan. If they went out on a big limb and say - Republicans say, we'll raise taxes - as some Republicans on the committee have said; and Democrats say, we'll cut Medicare - as some Democrats on the committee have said; and get all the political heat for doing that and then the House of Representatives as a whole says, we're not going to accept this plan; then, you know, then there's – they've just had their limbs sawed out from under them, and that makes it harder to come to an agreement.

And the House is getting all kinds of heat from outside groups on this. And so they are – you know, it's going to be very hard to get this done. Now, this week, Republicans in the House are bringing a balanced budget constitutional amendment to the floor. That will give them a vote on something, and maybe that gives them some cover. But it's hard to see.

And of course, Renee, it's playing out as the Republican presidential campaign goes on, and the heat from those candidates to not raise any taxes is also very, very high. So it's hard to see how it gets done, but sometimes in Washington, at the very last moment when things are tense, they get done.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Cokie Roberts, always a pleasure.

ROBERTS: Thank you.


MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Cokie Roberts was one of the 'Founding Mothers' of NPR who helped make that network one of the premier sources of news and information in this country. She served as a congressional correspondent at NPR for more than 10 years and later appeared as a commentator on Morning Edition. In addition to her work for NPR, Roberts was a political commentator for ABC News, providing analysis for all network news programming.