Beyond tax hikes and budget cuts, President Obama and the Republicans added a third element Wednesday to the "fiscal cliff" standoff: the debt ceiling.
Obama, in a speech to business executives, warned Republicans not to let budget disputes affect the process of raising the debt ceiling next year.
"I will not play that game," Obama told the Business Roundtable, an organization of CEOs. "Because we've got to break that habit before it starts."
Obama was responding to reports that congressional Republicans might be willing to approve extensions of middle-class tax cuts now, then use a debt-ceiling increase to leverage more spending cuts and other concessions from the administration.
The nation does not need a rerun of the 2011 debt-ceiling dispute, Obama said, calling that incident a catastrophe that threatened a government default and led to a downgrade in the nation's credit rating.
"We agree there is no reason for drama surrounding a debt-limit increase," responded Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. "All that is required is the president getting serious about spending cuts."
Obama's debt-ceiling comments highlighted remarks in which he basically asked the CEOs to help him raise their taxes. Higher tax rates on the "top 2%" of incomes will help the government raise more revenue, contributing to a "balanced" plan that also includes budget cuts in an effort to reduce a national debt that now tops $16trillion, he said.
"That includes all of you, yes," Obama told the CEOs, "but not in any way that's going to affect your spending, your lifestyles or the economy in any significant way."
Republican opposition to higher tax rates on the wealthy is the main issue preventing an agreement, Obama said. With that "conceptual breakthrough," he said, "we can probably solve this in about a week; it's not that tough."
Obama devoted most of his remarks to summarizing the state of negotiations with Republicans to avoid the fiscal cliff, the series of tax increases and budget cuts that take effect in 2013 without a debt-reduction agreement.
Boehner and other congressional Republicans say the higher rates will kill jobs and slow economic growth. They have proposed new revenues through the elimination of tax loopholes and deductions -- and noted on Wednesday that Obama once agreed with their approach.
They flagged a quote from 2011 in which the president said the government could raise as much as $1.2trillion in new revenue over 10 years without rate hikes by "eliminating loopholes, eliminating some deductions and engaging in a tax reform process that could have lowered rates generally while broadening the base."
White House officials said those comments were made in the context of overall tax reform, a process that would take months and extend well past the fiscal cliff deadline.
Republican lawmakers also want Obama to be more specific about spending cuts. "We have to do something about the spending," said House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va. "An obsession to raise taxes is not going to solve the problem."
Republicans called on Obama to sit down with them on these issues. "We can't negotiate with ourselves," Boehner said.
Whether that negotiation includes the debt ceiling remains to be seen.
The debt ceiling is the maximum amount the government can borrow to pay its debts. It is now nearly $16.4trillion. At the current rate of government spending, it will need to be raised early next year.
The Obama team has its own debt-ceiling proposal, a plan used to settle the 2011 dispute. It gave Obama authority to raise the ceiling on his own. The House or Senate could pass a resolution of disapproval, which Obama could veto, forcing the House or Senate to muster a two-thirds override vote in order to block the debt-ceiling increase.
The White House calls it the "McConnell provision," after its creator, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart says the administration has "amnesia" about the origins of that plan.
"The debt ceiling was raised last year only after the White House agreed to nearly $2trillion in cuts to Washington spending, and agreed to be bound by the timing and amount set by Congress -- not his own whim," Stewart said.
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