Debt Talks and Little Else on Washington's Agenda
WASHINGTON — The debt showdown isn't just the dominant issue in Washington this summer — it's virtually the only one getting any attention in the nation's capital.
From the White House to Congress, the negotiations over raising the U.S. debt limit have overshadowed or halted work on everything from job creation to the military conflict in Libya to education reform. And the debt debate has hamstrung President Barack Obama's ability to hit the road to campaign and raise money for his re-election bid.
The frenetic pace of Washington often means what is news one day can fade to the background the next. But rarely does a singular issue suck up so much of the oxygen for such a sustained period.
Obama hasn't traveled outside Washington in July, except for a weekend jaunt to the presidential retreat at Camp David. Lawmakers who previously met with the president only sporadically came to the White House for five straight days of talks, and will likely be back again before Aug. 2, when the Treasury Department has warned the government will default unless the debt ceiling is raised. The House and Senate both canceled weeklong breaks planned for this month so they could stay in town to work on a deal.
The president has foreshadowed even more debt talk disruptions through the rest of the summer if lawmakers don't reach a compromise.
"We are not going to let Congress go on August recess — have a one month vacation — while this problem doesn't get solved," Obama said in a television interview Thursday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Monday that his chamber will meet every day, including weekends, until Congress sends Obama legislation to make sure the government does not default on its obligations.
With the Aug. 2 deadline looming, the all-consuming nature of the talks is a near-imperative for lawmakers and the president.
But because Obama and congressional leaders have essentially cleared their schedules to focus on the negotiations, other pressing national priorities are being overshadowed, or shelved completely until there's a debt deal.
The debate over U.S. military involvement in Libya that was so contentious just last month, for example, has garnered barely a mention from the White House or Congress in recent weeks. The issue hasn't gone away — Republicans and anti-war Democrats still question Obama's legal authority to keep the U.S. engaged in the Libya bombing campaign — but GOP lawmakers have insisted that dealing with the debt should take precedence.
The nation's persistently high unemployment rate did manage to grab the spotlight briefly last week, after a disastrous report showed that job growth had nearly stalled. But there is little, if any, progress being made on legislation that would directly lead to job creation. Even passage of three key free-trade deals that both Obama and Republicans say will support jobs in the U.S. has been stymied by the debt talks, with administration officials putting some of the blame for the delay in ratifying the agreements on the tense partisan atmosphere created by the debt ceiling debate.
And forget about the overhaul of the controversial No Child Left Behind education law the administration wanted lawmakers to finish by the time the school year starts this fall. Congress has made so little progress that the Education Department warned it's coming up with a plan B to give schools relief from the federal mandates if lawmakers fail to act.
While Obama continues to be briefed and hold private meetings on issues unrelated to the debt talks, the White House has limited Obama's public appearances during the last week almost exclusively to news conferences, statements or photo opportunities related to the negotiations.
"They've made the very realistic and practical judgment that those other things won't get attention," said Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman under former President George W. Bush.
Still, Obama said Friday that he knows the American people would rather see Washington focusing on issues that have more resonance in their daily lives.
"We've been obsessing over the last couple of weeks about raising the debt ceiling and reducing the debt and deficit," he said. "I tell you what the American people are obsessing about right now is that unemployment is still way too high and too many folks' homes are still underwater, and prices of things that they need, not just that they want, are going up a lot faster than their paychecks are if they've got a job."
But lawmakers from both parties say it would be difficult to address any of those issues if they can't get control of the nation's debt and prevent a default.
"All of our guys know this is the moment to do something really meaningful for the economy and our looming debt crisis," said Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner. "If this debate is blocking out the sun, it's only because the debt problem is just that large."
Lingering just below the surface of the debt debate — and sometimes bubbling above it — is the fast-approaching 2012 election. As long as Obama is stuck in Washington working on a deal, he won't be traveling to politically important battleground states to sell the public on his policies or raise campaign funds. That may be a less serious problem for Obama, who hauled in $86 million for his re-election campaign and the Democratic Party in the three months ending June 30. That was more than all his GOP rivals combined.
Those rivals, meanwhile, are steadily ramping up their campaigns and attacks on Obama, while feeling little compulsion to jump into the contentious and divisive debt debate consuming the capital.