|Barack Obama arrives to make a
statement to the press in the Rose Garden
© AFP Jewel Samad
WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President Barack Obama signed an emergency austerity bill Tuesday that averted a debt default, but warned the contentious plan was “just the first step” on a long road to economic recovery.
“It’s an important first step to ensuring that, as a nation, we live within our means,” Obama said in the White House Rose Garden after polarized lawmakers sent him the legislation. “This is, however, just the first step.”
The measure lifts cash-strapped Washington’s $14.3 trillion debt limit by up to $2.4 trillion while cutting at least $2.1 trillion in government spending over 10 years, a step forecast to drag down already sluggish US growth.
Obama spoke after the US Senate voted 74-26 to pass the measure — which cleared the House of Representatives by an overwhelming 269-161 margin on Monday — with just hours to spare before a midnight (0400 Wednesday) deadline that could have triggered a first-ever US default on its debt payments.
Congressional approval paid immediate dividends as the IMF applauded the deal and the Fitch ratings agency said the hard-fought 11th-hour compromise would spare Washington from losing from its sterling triple-A debt rating.
A downgrade would have likely led to a spike in US interest rates, making debt payments pricier and hurting Americans holding flexible-rate loans — anyone carrying credit card debt, or seeking an auto loan.
But Fitch said it would keep a close eye on the country’s long-term finances and pressed for “a credible multi-year deficit reduction plan” if Washington is to stay in the elite club of healthy, low-risk debtor economies.
At the International Monetary Fund, Managing Director Christine Lagarde applauded the statement as “good for both the US and global economy” but pushed US leaders to craft a plan to put public finances “on a sustainable path.”
Obama’s 2012 reelection bid will turn on voters’ perceptions of his handling of the US economy, which has labored under historically high unemployment above nine percent as it struggles to recover from the global meltdown of 2008.
The president promised the deficit-cutting would not starve education and research nor happen “too abruptly while the economy is still fragile.”
Republicans have promised the spending cuts will create jobs, but top Wall Street economists have warned the austerity measures will actually be a drag on sluggish US growth even as government stimulus measures run out.
The overall shift from priming the US economy to government belt-tightening is expected to reduce US growth next year by about 1.5 percentage points, according to JPMorgan Chase economists.
The vote came as the US Commerce Department reported that US consumer spending, the economy’s key driver, fell 0.2 percent in June relative to May, while personal income was basically stagnant, with just a 0.1 percent increase.
Both figures fell short of analysts’ expectations and offered the latest discouraging omen about the US economy, which grew at a feeble 1.3 percent in the second quarter of 2011, much worse than economists had expected.
US stocks plunged more than two percent Tuesday focusing on dismal economic numbers and the prospect of no more government spending to boost the economy.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 2.2 percent while the broader S&P 500 dropped 2.6 percent.
Obama signaled he would campaign for raising tax revenue on the rich and wealthy corporations, a proposal that has already generated lockstep opposition from Republicans.
“I’ve said it before, I will say it again: We can’t balance the budget on the backs of the very people who have borne the biggest brunt of this recession,” he said. “Everyone’s going to have to chip in. That’s only fair.”
Democrats, especially on the party’s left flank, have expressed outrage that the bargain Obama struck with his Republican foes omitted any tax increase on the wealthy.
The new law calls for more than $900 billion in cuts over the next 10 years — $350 billion of it in defense — and creates a special congressional committee tasked with coming up with another $1.5 trillion in cuts to report by November 23, with Congress voting by December 23.
A failure by the committee would trigger painful, automatic cuts to key priorities of both parties.
© AFP — Published at Activist Post with license