Senate GOP bloc demanding entitlement reform in exchange for debt limit hike

Nearly half the Republicans in the Senate are threatening to vote against increasing the federal debt ceiling unless the president promises to tackle entitlements.

In a letter sent to President Obama Wednesday, 23 GOP senators warned it will be "difficult, if not impossible" to approve a hike to the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling if the president does not take the lead on reforming Medicare and Social Security.

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The warning makes for a high-stakes standoff in the coming months. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has warned of global economic catastrophe if the limit is not raised in time, and the Treasury now expects to hit that ceiling sometime between April 15 and May 31.

"Federal expenditures on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are expected to double over the coming decade and represent an unsustainable portion of total government spending," the senators, led by Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), wrote. "In order to ensure the long-term viability of these programs, it is imperative that you lead a bipartisan effort to address these challenges."

They specifically cite the comprehensive deficit reduction plan put forward by the president's fiscal commission as "an important first step in identifying a potential path forward."

That plan, dubbed the Bowles-Simpson plan, proposed cuts to Social Security benefits and raising the retirement age, but failed to garner enough support from the commission to be sent to Congress for a vote.

While Democrats still control a slim majority in the Senate, they likely will need some Republican support to approve a debt limit increase, as filibuster threats loom.

Freshman Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) vowed in January to filibuster any increase that does not include a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, meaning a 60-vote threshold could be necessary to keep the government from hitting that ceiling. Lee signed on to Tuesday's letter, along with GOP moderates such as Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) and Tea Party favorites such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said March 11 that he thinks no Republicans will vote for a debt ceiling increase unless "we do something significant about the debt." He named entitlement reform as a major area needing action, but stopped short of making a debt limit increase contingent on it in an interview with The Associated Press. McConnell did not sign the letter.

The Obama administration has acknowledged the need to reform Social Security, but stopped short of making specific recommendations in its fiscal 2012 budget proposal.