GOP Senate Leader Won’t Support Debt-Limit Increase Without Medicare Reform

By Terence P. Jeffrey | May 31, 2011 | 2:56 PM EDT

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.) with President Barack Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius during a health-care reform meeting at Blair House in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 25, 2010. (AP photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

( - Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.) said over the weekend he will not vote to increase the legal limit on the national debt unless lifting the limit is coupled with reform of the Medicare system, which is the government’s most expensive domestic program and is projected to be the top driver of federal deficit spending in the future.

“I can assure you … that to get my vote to raise the debt ceiling, for whatever that's worth, my one vote, Medicare will be a part of it,” McConnell said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

The federal government bumped up against the legal debt limit of $14.294 trillion on May 16. Since then, the Treasury Department has been taking what Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner calls “extraordinary measures” to keep the debt just below that threshold.

McConnell indicated that congressional Republicans are negotiating with President Barack Obama in the hopes of getting an agreement to reform Medicare that is coupled with legislation to increase debt limit.

“The president says Medicare needs to be on the table, the vice president says Medicare needs to be on the table. Steny Hoyer, the number two Democrat in the House, says Medicare needs to be on the table,” said McConell. “It is on the table in the discussions related to the debt ceiling.”

In explaining why he will not vote to lift the debt limit without also reforming Medicare, McConnell pointed to dramatic statements made in recent months by Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, who served as co-chair of President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility.

“We know that the co-chairman of the president's deficit reduction commission, Erskine Bowles, said that this is the most predictable crisis heading our way, that's our debt and deficit, the most predictable crisis in American history,” said McConnell. “We know the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when asked what was the biggest national security threat to the United States, said the debt and deficit was our biggest threat.  It's time to act … regardless of the election a year and a half from now.”

Admiral Mullen told the Detroit Econmic Club last August: “I think the single-biggest threat to our national security is our debt.”

Testifying before the Senate Budget Committee in March, Bowles said: “I think we face the most predictable economic crisis in history. A lot of us sitting in this room didn't see this last crisis as it came upon us. But this one is really easy to see. The fiscal path we are on today is simply not sustainable. This debt and these deficits that we are incurring on an annual basis are like a cancer and they are truly going to destroy this country from within unless we have the common sense to do something about it.

“I used to say that I got into this thing for my grandchildren. I have eight grandchildren under five years old,” said Bowles. “But this problem is going to happen long before my grandchildren grow up. … It may be two years, you know, maybe a little less, maybe a little more.”

McConnell also said on “Meet the Press” that he voted last week in the Senate for Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan, that includes as a long-term goal Ryan’s plan to reform Medicare, but that he was not insisting that Ryan’s plan be the one that President Obama agree to in an overall budget deal.

“I voted for the Ryan budget this week,” McConnell said.

“I'm personally very comfortable with the way Paul Ryan would structure it [Medicare] in the out years,” said McConnell. “But we have a Democratic president.  We're going to have to negotiate with him on the terms of changing Medicare so we can save Medicare.”