McConnell: Use the "Debt Ceiling Moment" for Entitlement Reform

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 12 2011 1:46 PM

McConnell: Use the "Debt Ceiling Moment" for Entitlement Reform

Discussing what Republicans needed in order to raise the debt ceiling today, Mitch McConnell went a little further than John Boehner. Like Boehner, he said that the party wanted entitlement reform as part of a deal. He didn't get too specific, other than saying the deal would have to be reform, not studying reform.

"Not to be argumentative, but the things I'm talking about have been studied to death," said McConnell. "We don't need more hearings. All the options are on the table, thanks to the president's deficit reduction commission. It's a question of what you want to pick up and really do."

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The main argument: If the president met Republicans and agreed to entitlement reform -- with no tax increases -- then both parties would be inured from political damage.

"I view this as a major opportunity for us to do something important for the country," said McConnell. "Think of Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan in 1983, when they fixed Social Security for a generation. Think of Bill Clinton and the Republicans on welfare reform in 1996. Think of Bill Clinton and the Republicans actually balancing the budget in the 1990s. Look, divided government, when neither party controls the government is the best time, the best time, and some would argue the only time, when you can do really big stuff. And if you do it on a bipartisan basis... I was running for the Senate the first time in 1984. This was the year after the bipartisan agreement between Reagan and O'Neill raised the retirement age for Social Security. I do not exaggerate when I say I was not asked about it a single solitary time. Not once in the course of a whole race. And the reason was that they did it together. When you do something together, the result is that it's not usable in the election. I think there's an understanding that if there's a grand bargain, none of it will be usable in next year's election."

The irony of McConnell using this example is that the 1983 deal raised taxes , and he's now ruling that out. Republicans choked down a rise in the payroll tax; Democrats settled for a raise in the retirement age. Also worth remembering: the 1983 crisis was explicitly about Social Security becoming insoluble. The current campaign is to use the debt limit as a conveyance for cuts, when even S&P says a deal that raised taxes as well as cutting spending would prove that the United States was tackling debt seriously.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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