Obama Mobilizes Big Business in Debt Talks

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NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP / Getty Images

This letter from Big Business to all of Washington’s political leaders urging a speedy resolution to the debt limit debate was partly in response to a push by the Obama administration to up pressure for a deal. In recent days the White House and Treasury Department have been in contact with top business lobbyists and nationally recognized businessmen, urging them to wield their influence with those who might risk going down to the wire in the debt limit talks.

Some in the administration have been setting up the business play for months. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s guest at last April’s White House Correspondents Association Dinner, and in a chat at Treasury beforehand, the mayor offered to help with the debt ceiling negotiation. At the time, Geithner said it would be more helpful to wait until it got close to the deadline, a senior administration official says.

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In recent days, Treasury called in the favor, says the official and Bloomberg made a lengthy statement Tuesday: “Both parties in Washington have different plans for how to reduce our debt – and I hope they can come to an agreement soon – but that debate should not be tied to the debt ceiling. America’s good name and credit are just too important to be held hostage to Washington gridlock, and I hope that in the end cooler heads will prevail and an agreement will be reached quickly.”

At the same time Treasury and the White House have been in direct touch with Warren Buffet, and last Thursday in an interview on CNBC from the annual investors summit in Idaho, he called the debt limit face off “Russian Roulette.” “You’re playing with fire when you don’t need to play with fire,” Buffett said. “We should be more grown up than that.”

The administration’s broadest effort came Monday at Treasury Department headquarters. Geithner has regular meetings with leaders of the business community, like the Chamber of Commerce’s Tom Donohue and the Business Roundtable’s John Engler. In their Monday meeting, there were representatives of both lobbying groups present, but also top envoys from  life insurance companies, bankers and others.

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The message, says a senior administration official, was, “You’ve gotta step up. There are still a lot of people who want to just play this down to the wire. Our message is get this done, we’re aiming to do as big a deal as possible, but we can’t run the risk, any risk, that people think that there’s any benefit in taking it right up to the wire.”

There was some complaint from the lobbyists that the administration had been beating them up for not doing more to pressure Congress to strike a deal. But the official says there’s universal agreement that raising the debt ceiling needs to be done and the sooner the better.

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