GOP senators focus on entitlement cuts

At a White House meeting on Thursday, Senate Republicans demanded that President Obama agree to substantial cuts in entitlement spending.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters he will oppose increasing the debt ceiling unless Obama and the Democrats agree to short-term cuts in discretionary spending and cuts in entitlement programs over the medium and long terms.

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“In the long term, we all know — long term — we have over 50 trillion in unfunded liabilities and very popular programs that Americans depend on, Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, that are simply on an unsustainable path,” McConnell said.

Lawmakers attending the meeting, which ran for about an hour and 15 minutes, left with a consensus that Medicare and Medicaid reforms have to be on the negotiating table, said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).

Separately, Vice President Joe Biden said everything was on the table, including Medicare, following the third meeting of a group of lawmakers working with him on a deal to raise the debt ceiling and reduce the deficit.

Obama met with Senate Republicans a day after meeting with Senate Democrats, whom the president said should not draw lines in the sand during the talks.

Republicans have drawn a line on taxes. McConnell and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) have both said no tax increases should be considered in the talks, while the White House wants to raise some taxes.

Social Security was not discussed in the meeting between Republicans and Obama and seems unlikely to be considered in the debate over reducing spending and raising the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling.

“We didn’t spend any time in the meeting talking about Social Security, because our assumption is that they don’t want to do it,” McConnell said of the White House. “I wish they did, because ... we ran a $50 billion deficit in Social Security this year.”

Yet House Republicans avoided calling for reforms to Social Security in their budget proposal, which included significant changes to Medicare and Medicaid.

Polls also have suggested that Medicare reforms are unpopular, and some Senate Republicans have signaled opposition to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) proposal to create a voucher system to save money.

Obama knows he will have a tough time convincing congressional Republicans to increase federal borrowing authority and worked hard to set a friendly tone with Republican senators.

He took questions and comments from every GOP senator who wanted to express his or her views and won praise from McConnell for taking a productive first step in talks to raise the national debt ceiling.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who pressed Obama to take up Medicare reform, talked about the high concentration of seniors in his state and mentioned that his mother is a Medicare beneficiary.

“I focused on Medicare as one example because of the story of my mom,” he said. “That’s how I view Medicare, through the eyes of her life and what it means for her, but also through the fact that if we don’t do anything about it, it will go bankrupt in five to 12 years.”

Corker, Tom Coburn (Okla.), Rob Portman (Ohio), Pat Toomey (Pa.) and John Hoeven (N.D.) were several of the other lawmakers who spoke up.

Obama was careful not to dominate the meeting, according to Republican senators who attended. The president opened the session with brief remarks and spent most of the session listening to lawmakers’ concerns and responding to their arguments.

He cautioned Republicans that they would have to give some ground in the talks.

“He also made clear that both sides have to give a little and that no one is going to get everything he or she wants,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

In the short term, McConnell wants Obama and Democrats to agree to setting the top-line number for all federal discretionary spending over the next two years.

For the three- or eight-year period beyond 2013, McConnell wants to see the projected levels of discretionary and entitlement spending curbed downward. He said he wants spending caps on discretionary and entitlement spending for the medium term.

“We’re looking for trillions, not billions,” McConnell said, noting that the $2.2 trillion the federal government will collect this year will go entirely to pay for entitlement programs and interest on the national debt.

McConnell declined to reveal how much higher he is willing to raise the debt limit, which now stands at $14.3 trillion. He said whether Republicans agree to extend federal borrowing authority by another six months, a year or two years will be a matter for negotiation.

McConnell does not appear much interested in raising the debt limit just enough to give negotiators more time beyond the early-August deadline to reach an agreement.

“The things I’m talking about have already been studied to death — we don’t need to have any more hearings,” he said

Carney told reporters after the meeting that Republican senators agree with the president that the debt ceiling needs to be increased.

“And everyone in the room, at least who spoke to that issue, agreed that we absolutely have to raise the debt ceiling, which was a good thing,” he said.

Obama and Republican senators discussed tax reform briefly.

But McConnell said comprehensive tax reform would not be part of a deal because there is not enough time over the next two and a half months to overhaul the complex tax code.