WASHINGTON — Face to face at the White House, GOP leaders complained to President Barack Obama on Wednesday that he had not produced a detailed plan of spending cuts and accused him of playing politics over Medicare as the nation careens toward a debt crisis.
The White House said Obama has in fact led on the issue and made clear that he has no intention of dropping what Democrats believe is a winning political issue: accusing the GOP of trying to destroy the popular health care program for seniors.
"He doesn't believe that we need to end Medicare as we know it," said press secretary Jay Carney.
Republicans said their plan would save Medicare, not end it, and they in turn accused Obama of failing to present any proposals to preserve Medicare or drive down deficits at all.
"Unfortunately what we did not hear from the president is a specific plan," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas.
At the heart of the dispute is an Aug. 2 deadline to raise the government's borrowing limit or risk an unprecedented credit default that the White House and even many Republicans say would be disastrous for the U.S. economy. Republicans are refusing to approve the debt-limit increase without ordering spending cuts topping a trillion dollars at the same time. The White House is insisting that in addition to spending restraint the deficit trimming must include tax increases that Republicans say are off the table.
In the heat of early June, August looked a long way away Wednesday and it seemed clear that plenty of political posturing lay ahead before deadline pressure would induce the parties to step up with real talks. Actual negotiations are being led in private by Vice President Joe Biden and a much smaller group of lawmakers who have recently expressed confidence they'll be able to identify at least $1 trillion in cuts over the next decade. Negotiators are considering reductions in student loan subsidies, farm payments and support for federal workers' pensions. The Biden group next meets June 9.
Wednesday allowed the president a private face-to-face meeting with his Capitol Hill antagonists, and more than that a chance for both sides to recite now familiar political points. A key topic was Medicare, the massive government health insurance program for Americans 65 and older.
A plan put forward by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan would not affect people over age 55, but future Medicare beneficiaries would instead be given government subsidies to purchase private health insurance. Independent analysts have concluded beneficiaries would end up paying more.
Democrats have turned that into a political weapon with what Republicans are decrying as "Mediscare" tactics, using it as the basis of attack ads against the GOP. A special election in New York last week turned into a referendum on Medicare, and the result was a Democratic victory in a Republican-heavy New York district. New Rep. Kathy Hochul was sworn in Wednesday.
That's led to unease among Republicans who voted for the plan, and elation among Democrats who intend to exploit the issue for all its worth as the 2012 presidential election approaches.
Ryan, R-Wis., said he urged Obama Wednesday to dial back the politics in the interest of finding the bipartisan deal on deficit reduction the president says he desires.
"We simply described to him precisely what it is we've been proposing, so that he hears from us how our proposal works, so that in the future, he won't mischaracterize it," Ryan told reporters after the 75-minute session with Obama in the East Room.
Ryan said he told Obama: "We got to get our debt under control, and if we try to demagogue each other's attempts to do that, then we're not applying the kind of political leadership we need."
The president brushed off allegations of demagoguery by reminding the Republicans he was the guy who "wasn't born in the U.S.," according to sources familiar with the talks who spoke anonymously to describe them. That was a reference to GOP questioning of his background.
Republican officials said Boehner and other leaders all pressed Obama on Medicare, contending he had not put forward any plan to save it from going bankrupt.
Carney said that Obama had already offered an extensive deficit-cutting plan, referring to an April proposal from Obama to cut an overall $4 trillion over 12 years through a combination of spending cuts, tax increases and other measures.
Included in that is $480 billion from Medicare and Medicaid. Obama's plan is short on details but would aim to limit payments for prescription drugs and empower an independent board to recommend policies to keep Medicare expenditures down.
Meanwhile, Carney refused to disavow liberal attack ads including one showing a Ryan look-alike shoving a wheelchair-bound senior off a cliff.
"I don't know what ads he may or may not have seen," Carney said of the president. "What I will say is that the substantive differences over Medicare are real."
The session between Obama and House Republicans came on the heels of a symbolic and lopsided vote the day before against a GOP proposal to raise the cap on the debt by $2.4 trillion. The proposal, intended to prove that a bill to increase the borrowing limit with no spending cuts is dead on arrival, failed badly Tuesday on a 318-97 vote.
Democrats said the vote was aimed at giving tea party-backed Republicans an opportunity to broadcast a "nay" vote against the administration's position that any increase in U.S. borrowing authority should be done as a stand-alone measure uncomplicated by difficult spending cuts to programs like Medicare. A more painful vote to raise the debt ceiling looms for Republicans this summer.
Biden is leading talks on reaching spending cuts alongside the debt measure in advance of the August deadline set by the Treasury Department.
If no action is taken by then, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has warned, the government could default on its obligations and risk turmoil that might plunge the nation into another recession or even an economic depression.
The government already has reached the limit of its borrowing authority, $14.3 trillion, and the Treasury is using a series of extraordinary maneuvers to meet financial obligations. In an update on the debt status, the Treasury Department said Wednesday that recent spending and tax receipts had made no change in its previous estimate that the government will run out of maneuvering room to avoid an unprecedented default on the national debt on Aug. 2.
Associated Press writers Ben Feller, Andrew Taylor and David Espo contributed to this report.