US lawmakers abandon efforts to rein in ballooning debt

US lawmakers abandoned their high-profile effort to rein in the country’s ballooning debt on Monday in a sign that Washington will be unlikely to resolve a dispute over taxes and spending until 2013.

The admission of defeat by Republicans and Democrats on a 12-member congressional “super committee” is likely to cement perceptions among voters and investors that politicians are too divided to tackle $1-trillion budget deficits and a national debt that now is roughly equal to the US economy.

“Despite our inability to bridge the committee’s significant differences, we end this process united in our belief that the nation’s fiscal crisis must be addressed and that we cannot leave it for the next generation to solve,” Republican Representative Jeb Hensarling and Democratic Senator Patty Murray said in a joint statement.

But lawmakers will be less willing to compromise as they shift their attention to the November 2012 presidential and congressional elections.

The finger-pointing began within minutes of the announcement.

‘Will not budge’
President Barack Obama said at the White House that Republicans had scuttled the talks by refusing to consider tax hikes on the wealthy.

“They simply will not budge from that negotiating position and so far that refusal has been the main stumbling block that has prevented Congress from reaching an agreement to further reduce the deficit,” Obama said at the White House.

Republicans blamed Obama for a lack of leadership and said his Democrats had been unwilling to consider a fundamental overhaul of government-run healthcare programs that could swamp the economy in coming decades as the population ages.

The panel waited until after US markets closed at 4pm to formally declare the effort dead but shares on Wall Street had already hit a one-month low due to fears of out-of-control government debt in Europe and the US. Japan’s Nikkei index opened lower on Tuesday, hitting its lowest level in eight months.

Uncertainty ahead
The committee’s failure to agree on $1.2-trillion in deficit reduction sets up a year of uncertainty on taxes and spending that could further rattle investors already shaken over euro zone debt woes.

Congress is now set to deliver those budget savings through automatic cuts to defence and domestic programs but some Republicans have vowed to prevent them from hitting the military. Obama said he would veto any effort to do so.

He will have to contend with a concerted lobbying effort by his own defence secretary to preserve the Pentagon’s budget.

“If Congress fails to act over the next year, the department of defence will face devastating, automatic, across-the-board cuts that will tear a seam in the nation’s defence,” Defence Secretary Leon Panetta warned.

Credit-rating agencies, already dismayed by Washington’s inability to produce a credible plan to tackle the country’s debt, could downgrade US debt if the cuts are rolled back.

Negative outlook
Standard & Poor’s said the news validated its decision to issue a first-ever US credit downgrade in August. Moody’s Investors Service said that failure, by itself, would not lead to a rating change.

Fitch said it would finish its assessment of the US rating by the end of the month. It said previously that failure by the super committee to reach agreement would likely result in a negative outlook.

Congress will have to deliver close to $4-trillion in savings to ensure that the national debt, now at $15-trillion, does not swamp the economy, budget experts say.

“The US is on a perilous debt course and today’s [Tuesday] announcement does nothing to alter it,” said Maya MacGuineas, head of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget think tank.

In the coming weeks, Democrats will scramble to extend economy-boosting measures, such as a tax cut for workers and enhanced jobless benefits, which are due to expire at the end of the year. Analysts say the economy could suffer if they are not extended, but Republicans are likely to insist on spending cuts to offset their $168-billion cost.

Keeping up the pressure on Republicans, Obama will renew his call for Congress to pass the payroll tax cuts during a trip to New Hampshire on Tuesday.

Obama has kept his distance from the talks, choosing instead to emphasise a job-creation package that has been blocked by Republicans. Aides say the collapse of the super committee will help him paint Republicans as obstructionist as he campaigns for re-election.

Congressional leaders set up the super committee after a fierce budget battle brought the government to the brink of default in August. The panel bypassed the usual Capitol Hill power centres in an effort to find common ground where other efforts had come up short.

During the talks, Republicans showed a new willingness to move from their staunch opposition to tax increases as they pushed for an overhaul that would have closed tax breaks and lowered rates.

Democrats rejected the proposal after they determined it would have led to a lower tax burden for the wealthy.

Fallen short
Outside the negotiating room, interest groups like the conservative anti-tax Americans for Tax Reform and the seniors’ lobby AARP pushed hard to protect their turf.

Several groups said they were happy the panel had fallen short. “Simply put, no deal is better for America than a bad deal,” said the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a liberal group.

Democratic Senator John Kerry, a member of the super committee, said those outside of Congress were as much to blame for defeat as those who hold elected office.

“There is an enormous ideological divide in politics today, and today’s outcome underscores the rigidity and unwillingness of forces outside of Congress to allow for rational consensus,” Kerry said in a statement. — Reuters


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