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Worried and Waiting on the Hill

Updated: 6:47 p.m.

The debt limit issue dominated conversations on Capitol Hill on Thursday, but with no apparent movement toward an agreement on raising the nation’s borrowing capacity.

A group of conservative Republicans sent President Barack Obama a letter urging him to ensure that Social Security, Medicare and service member payments are made even if the country defaults on its debt Aug. 2, while also paying off the interest on that debt.

But like much of the fight over the debt limit, the news conference announcing the letter quickly devolved into attacks on Obama. Although Rep. Robert Aderholt said he and his colleagues were “hopeful that some agreement can be reached,” he also accused Obama of “misleading the public” by “telling seniors that there won’t be enough money in the federal coffers” to make their Social Security and Medicare payments. The Alabama Republican called the president’s warning “a scare tactic that won’t benefit the negotiations.”

Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.) said, “What the president is resorting to is scaring America’s seniors,” while Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said, “You have a ‘scarer in chief’ who goes out and frightens seniors with wrong information.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) engaged in cross-Dome combat over the debt ceiling negotiations before heading to the White House for another round of talks Thursday afternoon.

“Cantor has shown he shouldn’t be at the table, and Republicans agree he shouldn’t be at the table,” Reid said on the Senate floor Thursday, the day after Cantor complained to the media about being dressed down by Obama at a tense negotiation session.

“It’s not surprising that Harry Reid doesn’t want to cut spending and wants to raise taxes with so many Americans out of work,” Cantor spokesman Brad Dayspring said. “This isn’t a question about personalities — Eric, President Obama or Harry Reid — it’s about doing what is right for the country and trying to find a productive solution that finally demonstrates Washington is serious about America’s fiscal health.”

Outside Capitol Hill, groups sought Thursday to protect their interests in the negotiations. A coalition of 10 cancer research, treatment and patient organizations wrote a letter to Congressional leaders and Obama urging them to protect funding for treatment and research programs.

“In the face of the Medicare changes enacted through health care reform, we urge Congress to refrain from targeting for dramatic cuts the vulnerable Medicare population that requires life-sustaining cancer therapies,” the groups wrote. “Congress can protect the interests of both the Medicare program and Medicare beneficiaries by promoting evidence based medicine, not through wholesale cuts.”

Similarly, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ramped up a major push against a proposed balanced budget amendment to the Constitution that some House Republicans want to tie to the debt ceiling package. The amendment, which is expected to require a supermajority to raise taxes and force Congress to cut spending to balance the budget, is likely to move to the House floor next week.

Others on Capitol Hill opted to address other issues altogether. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and John Boozman (R-Ark.) held a news conference highlighting a policy and funding struggle over the future of manned space travel.

On the other side of the Capitol, GOP Reps. Richard Hanna (N.Y.) and Joe Barton (Texas) and Democratic Rep. Mike Doyle (Pa.) touted the National Baseball Hall of Fame Commemorative Coin Act, which would mark the 75th anniversary of the Cooperstown, N.Y., museum and shrine. Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro joined the trio for the event, which was attended by a handful of baseball junkies and Cooperstown natives.

Even Thursday afternoon’s main debt limit event, the fifth consecutive meeting at the White House between Obama and Congressional leaders, was not expected to result in much progress.

“I do not expect today a hallelujah moment,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

Steven T. Dennis and Jessica Brady contributed to this report.

Correction: July 15, 2011

An earlier version of this story misidentified the Member who said, “You have a ‘scarer in chief’ who goes out and frightens seniors with wrong information.” It was Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas).

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