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 CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsHillicon Valley: Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract in court | State antitrust investigation into Google expands | Intel agencies no longer collecting location data without warrant Intelligence agencies have stopped collecting cellphone data without warrants: letter This week: Democrats churn toward next phase of impeachment fight MORE (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 LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeGOP divided over impeachment trial strategy Hillicon Valley: Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract in court | State antitrust investigation into Google expands | Intel agencies no longer collecting location data without warrant Senators introduce bipartisan bill restricting police use of facial recognition tech MORE (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 PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulSenate scraps plan to force second stopgap vote ahead of shutdown On The Money: Senate scraps plan to force second shutdown vote | Trump tax breaks for low-income neighborhoods draw scrutiny | McConnell rips House Dems for holding up trade deal Democratic debate at Tyler Perry's could miss the mark with black voters MORE (R-Ky.).

Sen. Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Health Care: Fireworks on health care expected at Dem debate | Trump FDA pick dodges on vaping ban | Trump to host meeting on youth vaping Friday | AMA calls for immediate vaping ban GOP senator blocks vote on House-passed Violence Against Women Act On The Money: Senate scraps plan to force second shutdown vote | Trump tax breaks for low-income neighborhoods draw scrutiny | McConnell rips House Dems for holding up trade deal MORE (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.