Almost two-dozen Republican senators are threatening to oppose increasing the U.S. debt limit unless President Barack Obama leads efforts to begin cutting government entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
The 22 lawmakers, in a letter today to Obama, demanded he work out an agreement similar to the 1983 deal between President Ronald Reagan and then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a Massachusetts Democrat, that shored up the Social Security trust fund.
“A similar show of leadership from you and from congressional leaders of both parties is necessary to address the long-term fiscal challenges facing our country,” the letter said. “Without action to begin addressing the deficit, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for us to support a further increase in the debt ceiling.”
The government will reach the legal limit on borrowing sometime between April 15 and May 31, according to the Treasury Department.
White House Budget Director Jack Lew said lawmakers should focus on passing a budget measure to fund the government through September. The debt limit increase should be done “clean -- it’s irresponsible to do anything but extending the debt limit,” he said.
The agreement between Reagan and O’Neill “was not connected to a debt limit -- that was the result of a long process that was about Social Security,” said Lew, who at the time was an O’Neill adviser.
The federal government will spend $1.3 trillion this year, or about 35 percent of its budget, on Social Security and Medicare. The programs are projected to consume a steadily increasing share of tax money in coming years due to rising health-care costs and the aging of the population.
Enrollment in each will rise by one-third over the next decade to about 60 million, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
“In order to ensure the long-term viability of these programs, it is imperative that you lead a bipartisan effort to address these challenges,” the letter to Obama said.
Its signatories were Dan Coats and Richard Lugar, both of Indiana; Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire; Richard Burr of North Carolina; Saxby Chambliss of Georgia; Tom Coburn of Oklahoma; Bob Corker of Tennessee; John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas; Mike Crapo and James Risch of Idaho; John Ensign of Nevada; Mike Enzi of Wyoming; Mike Johanns of Nebraska; Ron Johnson of Wisconsin; Mike Lee of Utah; Rand Paul of Kentucky; Rob Portman of Ohio; Marco Rubio of Florida; Pat Roberts of Kansas, and Roger Wicker of Mississippi.