President, Democrats must now focus on the real problem: Spending

Soon President Obama will take the oath of office for a second time, and as commander in chief he will have a unique opportunity to lay out his vision for the country over the next four years. We all know that America faces many serious challenges, both at home and abroad, but none is more urgent than the massive federal debt that is hanging over the heads of our children and grandchildren.

Given the serious nature of the challenge, I hope the president uses his inaugural address to acknowledge the seriousness of the debt crisis and lays out ways, working with both parties in Congress, to get our profligate spending under control.

I will be the first to admit that the bipartisan “fiscal cliff” agreement we reached earlier this month was far from perfect, starting with the process. But aside from shielding 99 percent of Americans from tax hikes the president seemed all too willing to impose, it gave us something else — it settled the revenue debate for good. According to the president, those he calls “rich” are now paying their “fair share.” So it’s time to move on. The president got his revenue, and now it’s time to turn to the real problem, which is spending.

We all knew that the tax hikes the president campaigned on were never going to solve the problem. Now that he’s got them, he has a responsibility to put his preoccupation with taxes behind him and to work with Congress to actually solve the problem at hand. So it’s time to face up to the fact that our nation is in grave fiscal danger, and that it has everything to do with spending. This is a debate the American people want to have. And it’s an area where we’re more than willing to work with the president to find solutions to Washington’s out-of-control spending.

By the end of next month, the president will ask us to raise the nation’s debt limit. We cannot agree to increase that borrowing limit without reforms that lower the avalanche of spending that’s creating this debt in the first place. It’s not fair to the American people. And it’s not fair to our children, who we’re asking to foot the bill. And the health of our economy requires it.

I recently called on the president, the Senate majority leader and the rest of my Democratic colleagues to start working with congressional Republicans right now — not one hour or one day or one week before we hit the debt limit, but ahead of time for once — so we can pass a bipartisan solution on spending that everyone has had an opportunity to weigh in on in early February. We need a plan that can pass the House and actually begin to get Washington spending under control. And, if we’re serious, we will get one done.

With taxes now off the table, the only way to achieve a “balanced” plan is to focus on the spending side of the equation, particularly — as the president pointed out — healthcare entitlement programs. Taxes simply can’t go high enough to keep pace with the amount of money we’re projected to spend on them without crushing our economy. And the best way to reform these programs is to make them work better. The debt isn’t exploding because these programs exist; it’s exploding because they’re inefficient. They were created in a different era, the era of black-and-white TV. They should be updated for the age of the iPad. And we should want to fix them, not just because we want to lower the debt, but because we want to strengthen and improve these programs themselves. 

So over the next few months, it will be up to the president and his party to work with us to deliver the same kind of bipartisan and meaningful resolution on spending that we have now achieved on taxes — but it needs to happen before the 11th hour. We addressed the revenue issue; it is now time to address the spending issue and for the president to agree to significant spending cuts. 

The president claims to want a balanced approach. Now that he has the tax rates he demanded, his calls for “balance” mean he needs to join us in the effort to achieve meaningful spending reforms. The president may not want to have this debate, but it’s the one he’s going to have, because the country needs it. Republicans are ready to tackle the spending problem, and we start today. 

McConnell (R-Ky.) is the Senate Republican leader.