REUTERS - President Barack Obama pledged on Monday to cut the ballooning U.S. budget deficit by half in the next four years and said the economy would face another crisis if the country's debt problems were not addressed.
Obama, whose month-old administration has pushed through a $787 billion economic stimulus package to jolt the country out of recession, said the need for immediate spending did not mean U.S. budget problems could be put off.
"If we confront this crisis without also confronting the deficits that helped cause it, we risk sinking into another crisis down the road," Obama told participants at the opening of a White House summit on "fiscal responsibility."
Vice President Joe Biden underscored Obama's push to boost the country's fiscal position, saying the economic crisis should not overshadow necessary fiscal changes.
"We want to be clear: as we take the steps that we must to get through the crisis that we're in now, we will not lose sight of the long-term," Biden told the same gathering.
"We will not lose sight of the need to tackle unmet needs for health care reform, to deal with the energy policy that we need and so many other challenges that are going to determine what the 21st century looks like," Biden said.
Although his administration has focused its energies almost entirely on pulling the United States out of recession and addressing the financial sector problems that sparked it, Obama also wants to make good on campaign promises such as extending health care benefits to uninsured Americans and fighting climate change.
His budget director, Peter Orszag, said reducing healthcare costs was critical to assuaging U.S. economic ills.
"The single most important thing we can do to put the nation back on a sustainable (fiscal) course is slow healthcare costs," he said.
Obama invited lawmakers from both parties, business people, union leaders and budget experts to Monday's fiscal summit to discuss ways to deal with long-term issues such as health care, entitlement programs and federal contracting in areas like defense.
Prominent Republicans including House of Representatives Minority Leader John Boehner and Arizona Senator John McCain, Obama's rival in last year's presidential campaign, had said through their aides that they would attend.
Boehner and other Republicans have offered scathing criticisms of the stimulus bill, labeling the spending proposals wasteful and warning that it would bloat the debt.