WASHINGTON – For all the talk of a presidential “charm offensive” and possible thaw in partisanship, ample signs show that Congress is far from reaching a “grand bargain” to shrink the deficit.
The Senate’s top Republican, standing just outside the Capitol room where President Barack Obama was meeting with Democratic senators Tuesday, said he will push for trims to Medicare and Social Security without yielding another dollar in new tax revenues.
Democrats have long insisted that higher taxes — chiefly on the wealthy — must accompany any reductions in those entitlement programs. There must be a “balanced approach” to reducing the deficit, they say.
But Republicans say Obama used his only bit of tax leverage in December, in the “fiscal cliff” resolution. Now they are pushing Democrats to confront Medicare’s and Social Security’s long-term funding problems without the political sweetener that liberals have always demanded and that Obama called for in his re-election campaign.
“The only way to straighten America out is to fix the entitlement issue,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell told reporters Tuesday. “There is no revenue solution to that. It has to be done by making the eligibility for entitlements fit the demographics of America today and tomorrow.”
That was an apparent reference to raising the eligibility age for Medicare. McConnell’s office also cited recommendations to reduce entitlement benefits for high earners but stopped short of saying the Kentucky Republican endorses them.
McConnell said Republicans will use this summer’s debt-ceiling showdown — when Obama will insist on higher borrowing capacity to pay the government’s bills — as a bargaining tool to push for trimming the costly but popular Medicare and Social Security programs.
Democrats who met with Obama said the president will not entertain such talks. “He will not negotiate on the debt ceiling, period. End of discussion,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, after Tuesday’s closed meeting.
Other sounds of partisan discord echoed throughout the Capitol. The top House Republican budget-writer predicated his new 10-year spending plan on repealing “Obamacare,” the president’s signature overhaul of U.S. health care.
That’s politically impossible, given Obama’s re-election and the Supreme Court’s upholding of the landmark 2010 legislation.
But Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP’s vice-presidential nominee last year, said Republicans will not contemplate a tax-and-spending plan that includes the health law’s provisions.
Americans will reject the new law, which “will collapse under its own weight,” Ryan said. “We will never be able to balance the budget if Obamacare keeps going.”
When a reporter reminded Ryan that Obama won re-election, he replied, “That means we surrender our principles?” Republicans retained control of the House in the same election, Ryan noted.
McConnell, meanwhile, said the first Republican Senate effort to amend a Democratic budget plan will be “to delay the implementation of Obamacare until the economy gets back on track.”
The tough talk from Ryan and McConnell came as Obama expands his efforts to woo members of both parties. He is hoping for compromises to shrink the deficit, overhaul immigration and reduce gun violence, among other things.
The president treated 12 Republican senators to dinner last week. And in a rare burst of presidential visits to Capitol Hill, he is meeting separately this week with Senate Democrats, Senate Republicans, House Democrats and House Republicans.
Obama’s press office criticized Ryan’s 10-year proposal to reduce federal spending sharply without raising revenue through tax revisions. It’s bad policy, the statement said, “not to ask for a single dime of deficit reduction from closing tax loopholes for the wealthy and well-connected.” The statement urged “both parties to compromise and make tough choices.”
Close watchers of Congress were not encouraged by the sharply different budget plans proposed by House Republicans and Senate Democrats.
“These two sides are more interested in scoring points than getting an agreement,” said Jim Kessler, vice-president of the pro-Democratic group Third Way.
In his re-election campaign, Obama called for new revenues of about $1.2 trillion over 10 years, combined with spending cuts to tame the deficit. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, suggested up to $800 billion in new revenues. The two men ultimately failed to reach a deficit-reducing “grand bargain.”
Last year’s “fiscal cliff” legislation forced Republicans to swallow $620 billion in new revenues. Some Democrats say Obama should have demanded more.
Now, Republicans say, talk of further tax hikes “is closed,” even though Democrats say they won’t consider entitlement cuts without new revenues.
Harkin said Obama discussed a possible grand bargain with Democratic senators by saying, “Look, we have staked out a position on this that we believe is sort of in the centre, where the American people are. And if the Republicans want to pull more to the right, we’re not going there.”
On the House side, the new Republican 10-year budget plan “doesn’t give an inch,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the Democrat’s top Budget Committee member. “It doesn’t give a quarter-inch.”
But Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., who helped describe the new GOP budget to reporters Tuesday, said it will protect national security, care “for the poor and sick,” and boost the economy.
“All of this can be accomplished without raising taxes,” Price said.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Charles Babington covers Congress and national politics for The Associated Press. AP writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.
An AP News Analysis