WASHINGTON (AP) - The rapidly growing national debt could soon spark a European-style crisis unless Congress moves forcefully, the Congressional Budget Office warned Wednesday in a study that underscored the stakes for Vice President Joe Biden and negotiators working on a sweeping plan to reduce red ink.
Republicans seized on the report to renew their push to reduce costs in federal benefit programs such as Medicare.
The report said the national debt, now $14.3 trillion, is on pace to equal the annual size of the economy within a decade. It warned of a possible "sudden fiscal crisis" if it is left unchecked, with investors losing faith in the U.S. government's ability to manage its fiscal affairs.
The study reverberated throughout the Capitol as Biden and senior lawmakers spent several hours behind closed doors. The talks are aimed at outlining about $2 trillion in deficit cuts over the next decade, part of an attempt to generate enough support in Congress to allow the Treasury to take on new borrowing.
Biden made no comment as he departed, except to say the group would meet again on Thursday and probably Friday as well.
President Barack Obama plans to meet with House Democratic leaders today to discuss the status of the ongoing talks. The meeting comes as Democrats want the president to rule out Medicare benefit cuts as part of any budget deal.
CBO, the non-partisan agency that calculates the cost and economic impact of legislation and government policy, says the nation's rapidly growing debt burden increases the probability of a fiscal crisis in which investors lose faith in U.S. bonds and force policymakers to make drastic spending cuts or tax increases.
"As Congress debates the president's request for an increase in the statutory debt ceiling, the CBO warns of a more ominous credit cliff - a sudden drop-off in our ability to borrow imposed by credit markets in a state of panic," said House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
The findings aren't dramatically new, but the budget office's analysis underscores the magnitude of the nation's fiscal problems as negotiators struggle to lift the current $14.3 trillion debt limit and avoid a first-ever, market-rattling default on U.S. obligations. The Biden-led talks have proceeded slowly and are at a critical stage, as Democrats and Republicans remain at loggerheads over revenues and domestic programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
With Republicans insisting that the level of deficit cuts at least equal the amount of any increase in the debt limit, it would take more than $2 trillion in cuts to carry past next year's elections. House GOP leaders have made it plain they only want a single vote before the elections.
That $2 trillion-plus goal is proving elusive. And a top Senate Democrat warned Wednesday that it would be insufficient anyway.
"While I am encouraged by the bipartisan nature of the leadership negotiations being led by Vice President Biden, I am concerned by reports the group may be focusing on a limited package that will not fundamentally change the fiscal trajectory of the nation," said Senate budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D. "That would be a mistake."