Senate GOP: Dems must agree to cut entitlements

WASHINGTON -- The top Republican in the Senate said Friday that GOP senators will not go along with a must-pass bill to prevent the government from defaulting on its obligations unless President Barack Obama agrees to significant budget savings that could include cost curbs to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., complained that Obama has refused his offers, both public and private, to work on a bipartisan plan to tackle the nation's massive benefit programs, which threaten to overwhelm the budget in coming years. He laid down his challenge just weeks before the government may breach its borrowing limit.

Obama said separately on Friday that he and Congress should address the nation's long-term fiscal condition after lawmakers complete a deal on spending for the current fiscal year.

Obama said any agreement would have to be bipartisan and would require tackling defense spending, tax loopholes and major public programs such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Republican leaders have steadfastly opposed moves to bring in additional money by closing tax breaks such as those designed to help businesses.

The Treasury Department estimates the government will hit the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling sometime between April 15 and May 31. The Obama administration has warned Congress that failing to raise the debt limit would lead to an unprecedented default on the national debt that would roil financial markets and threaten the shaky economic recovery.

Meanwhile, the No. 2 Republican in the House announced that the chamber next week will approve a three-week stopgap measure to buy more time for negotiations on a bill to fund agency budgets through the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30. That measure involves day-to-day operating budgets instead of the major benefit programs like Medicare that are seen by most budget experts as the contributors to the nation's spiraling debt.

Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia said the temporary measure would include $6 billion in spending cuts as the price for the extra time for talks.

It's clear that extra time will be needed. House Republicans have yet to signal flexibility or even recognize that a Democratic offer has been made.

Cantor says, "There is really no offer on the table that is valid because it can't pass the Senate.''

Obama warned on Friday that "there are going to be certain things that House Republicans want that I will not accept'' in negotiations over the agency funding bill.

The stopgap continuing resolution would keep the government operating at 2010 levels through April 8, which means there is one month to wrap up slow-moving talks on bigger legislation to fund the day-to-day operating budgets of government agencies through the Sept. 30 end of the budget year.

Republicans are demanding steep cuts but Democrats vow to protect education and other programs.

Talks on closing a gap of about $50 billion between the two sides led by Vice President Joe Biden haven't progressed very far, in part because Biden has been on a diplomatic mission in Europe this week. But leaders on both sides also spent much of the week sniping at each other in a daily volley of press releases and news events.

At issue is legislation to fund the day-to-day operating budgets of every federal agency and provide a $158 billion infusion for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both bills officially total about $1.2 trillion, though roughly half of that has already been spent as the government has operated at last year's spending levels for almost half of the budget year that began Oct. 1.