House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, speaks Nov. 28 during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol. (Win McNamee / Getty Images)
U.S. House leaders headed straight for the microphones after closed-door meetings Nov. 28 about the nation’s dire fiscal condition, but neither Republicans nor Democrats indicated they would oppose new Pentagon cuts.
The two House caucuses huddled separately to talk about ongoing congressional-White House talks aimed at avoiding a fiscal cliff. But when they emerged, most of their comments focused on tax rates, domestic entitlement programs and federal spending cuts.
Economists say the U.S. economy would tumble off a steep cliff if a slew of tax cuts expire and deep cuts to planned federal spending, including for the military, are allowed to kick in.
Lawmakers and President Barack Obama can avoid such a scenario by agreeing to cuts of at least $1.2 trillion from the federal deficit by Dec. 31. If they fail to pass that kind of bill, or one that delays the defense cuts, twin $500 billion reductions to planned domestic and defense spending would be triggered.
The absence of talk about the defense cuts is a sign that further Pentagon budget reductions, at some level below $500 billion, are on the table.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson of Connecticut urged Republicans to support Obama’s proposal to extend middle-class tax cuts in coming weeks, and leave the question of whether to raise new federal revenue in the lower chamber.
“We have clear agreement among Democrats and Republicans that we have near unanimous support on making sure the middle class is not impacted by the Dec. 31 deadline,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra of California, vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus.
“Where we disagree, let us push that off,” Larson said, “and where we agree, let us embrace.”
The Democratic leaders signaled they remain skeptical about major changes to Medicare and Medicaid.
House Republicans have raised hopes in recent weeks for a “grand bargain” deal that avoids across-the-board Pentagon spending cuts by stating they would support raising new federal revenues. For nearly two years, congressional Republicans and presidential candidates had held firm against new revenues.
But in a series of interviews this week on Capitol Hill, Republicans have said they now want Democrats to come to the table with savings from domestic entitlement programs. GOP leaders are pressing Obama, and congressional Democrats also are looking for federal spending cuts.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters, “It’s time for the president and Democrats to get serious about the spending problem that we have.”
Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, said, “We have not seen any good faith effort to talk about the real problem we’re trying to fix.”
Cantor said Erskine Bowles, the Clinton-era White House chief of staff who was the co-chair of Obama’s 2010 fiscal commission, told Republicans, “There has been no serious discussion by the White House on Medicare and Medicaid.”
The Republican leaders made clear they oppose raising taxes on the wealthiest Americans and want entitlement program changes.
Neither party listed the Pentagon budget on their list of can’t-touch areas of the federal budget.
While Becerra and Boehner expressed confidence that Congress and Obama can strike some kind of deal by Dec. 31 that avoids the fiscal cliff, their comments show deep divides between the parties still exist.