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Obama says he can't raise debt ceiling on his own


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By David Jackson

President Obama said today that Congress has to avoid a government default by raising the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling because his lawyers say he lacks the authority to do so on his own.

Responding to a questioner at the University of Maryland, Obama struck the "14th amendment theory" -- that the Constitution gives the president the authority to make sure the nation's debts are paid, including an increase in the debt ceiling.

"There's a provision in our Constitution that speaks to making sure that the United States meets its obligations, and there have been some suggestions that a president could use that language to basically ignore this debt ceiling rule, which is a statutory rule; it's not a constitutional rule," Obama said.

He said, "I have talked to my lawyers ... They're not persuaded that that is a winning argument."

Obama conducted a town hall at the University of Maryland shortly after the Senate voted to table a House plan known as "Cut, Cap, and Balance." Democrats who control the Senate said the plan cut too deeply into middle-class programs while not requiring more taxes from wealthier Americans.

Some highlights:

11:03 a.m. -- Obama says he enjoys getting out of Washington after so much "debating the fine points of the federal budget with members of Congress." The president launches into a discussion of the economy -- leading with the issue of jobs, not the debt dispute. He stresses jobs ideas he wants Congress to pass: an extension of the payroll tax cut, infrastructure plans, less regulations, trade deals.

11:10 a.m. -- Obama gets down to the debt issue. The president tells the students, "I know it's hard to keep up with all the different plans" -- amen to that -- but the issue is simple: The government is spending more money than it takes in. And both parties are to blame.

11:15 a.m. -- The president expresses confidence that Congress will raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling -- "we have never defaulted on our debt, we're not going to do it now" -- but the question is the debt reduction deal that accompanies it.

Without providing a lot of details, Obama says he's willing to cut programs he cares about -- but budget cuts alone won't solve the debt problem. For one thing, cuts that are too deep would gut programs such as Medicare, education and energy development.

11:19 a.m. -- Obama says wealthy Americans should be asked to help cut the deficit through the elimination of certain tax cuts and loopholes. A supportive crowd applauds. "We can pass a balanced plan" to the cut the debt, Obama says.

Question time.

11:22 a.m. -- A woman asks about religious discrimination in hiring. Obama notes that under a "carve out" in the law, religious organizations do not have to hire people who are non-religious or a different faith. He says the issue arises in "fairly narrow circumstances."

11:25 a.m. -- A man asks why lawmakers are going for a big deal on the debt issue. Why not do something smaller or raise the debt ceiling on his own, then wait for the 2012 elections when voters can "get rid of these hooligans in the House?"

Obama says Congress needs to raise the debt ceiling as soon as possible to avoid a government default, and most members are demanding an agreement that addresses debt in the years ahead.

He said his lawyers don't think he has the authority to lift the debt ceiling on his own; it requires an act of Congress.

The president does not comment on "House hooligans."

11:32 a.m. -- A woman asks Obama whether he regrets any of his decisions.

You can always do better, Obama said. He notes that, even when Democrats controlled all of Congress in 2009-10, Republicans could filibuster items in the Senate.

11:38 a.m. -- A man asks when the government will end its "war on drugs" (a question that draws an enthusiastic response from the crowd).

Obama says he is trying to help Mexico battle drug dealers by reducing U.S. demand. He is opposed to decriminalization of drugs.

11:42 a.m. -- A woman asks if political compromise is dead (at least as far as the Republicans are concerned).

Obama sticks up for compromise: "That's not just how government works, that's how life works." He notes that President Abraham Lincoln had to cut deals, but today's political culture is "pushing against compromise." He urges people on the right and left to seek out counter-arguments that challenge their positions.

"Everybody's demonizing the other side," Obama says, and that "makes it pretty hard to compromise."

11:49 a.m. -- A man with cerebral palsy urges Obama to stick up for disabled people in his budget talks with Republicans. "Please don't leave us holding the bag," he says.

Obama says more government services for the disabled -- and others -- make them more self-sufficient, therefore less dependent on government in the long run.

11:55 a.m. -- Last question: A teacher asks how to maintain stable neighborhoods. Obama discusses urban policy.

11:59 a.m. -- Actually not the last question: Obama gives one more to Tom McMillen, a former congressman and former star basketball player at the University of Maryland. He asks Obama to be aware that cutting the deficit too quickly could slow growth and lead to another recession, something that happened to Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal back in 1930s.

Obama says he will make sure there is some kind of economic stimulus in any package, citing a proposed extension of the payroll tax cut. He cites proposed free-trade agreements and infrastructure programs.

Obama wraps up at 12:07 p.m.

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Obama says he can't raise debt ceiling on his own but he has been and will continue to do all he can to raise the national debt.

Obama says he is trying to help Mexico battle drug dealers by reducing U.S. demand. He is opposed to decriminalization of drugs.

Obama: "Just check out the results of our Fast and Furious program!" Ooooops scratch that.

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