Weekly Standard: Wading Into Battle And Out Of Debt

Fred Barnes is the executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

It was no accident that Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida, spoke first. Senate Republicans had adopted a division of labor for their session at the White House last week with President Obama. Eleven of them addressed the president, touching on spending cuts and raising the debt limit.

Rubio, 39, is the youngest and most acclaimed freshman in the Republican caucus. He talked about his 80-year-old mother and Medicare. Republicans, Rubio said, don't want to change Medicare for her and other current beneficiaries. Their aim is to ensure Medicare exists for later generations. That means reforms of Medicare must be taken up now.

Five other freshmen were among the Republicans who spoke. They want a spending reduction plan in place before increasing the debt limit and allowing the government to continue borrowing. The mood of the meeting was "courteous" rather than conciliatory, a senator said. If the president wants "a constructive solution," he'll have to cease his "destructive commentary" on Republican proposals, especially on Medicare.

Republicans had found a passage in Obama's budget speech last month particularly offensive. One senator took a copy of the speech with him and planned to read it back to the president. But he let Rubio and others handle the matter instead.

Here's the passage:

It's a [Republican] vision that says America can't afford to keep the promise we've made to care for our seniors. It says that 10 years from now, if you're a 65-year-old who's eligible for Medicare, you should have to pay $6,400 more than you would today. It says instead of guaranteed health care, you will get a voucher. And if that voucher isn't worth enough to buy the insurance that's available in the open marketplace, well, tough luck—you're on your own. Put simply, it ends Medicare as we know it.

Obama's harsh words and the reaction of Republicans reflect how far apart they are on the debt limit. They've been divided before on spending and debt issues since Republicans captured the House and added Senate seats in last November's election. This time there's a difference. Republicans have more leverage.

When temporary spending bills were negotiated earlier this year, Republicans were at a disadvantage. Either the president or the Democratic Senate could block spending cuts approved by the House. Indeed the Senate has done just that, notably blocking an entire 2012 budget drafted by Representative Paul Ryan and passed in the House. "We control one-half of one-third of the government," House speaker John Boehner has said. This limits what Republicans can achieve.

House Republicans, eager for bigger cuts, have become increasingly frustrated with this state of affairs. On the three spending measures, the number of no votes has risen from 6 to 54 to 59. And sentiment among Republicans against raising the debt limit is greater still.

This matters. On the debt limit, it's not a question of blocking what the House does. This time roles are reversed. Obama needs House approval of an increase or his administration cannot borrow more to pay off the government's creditors.

The White House initially sought to have a hike in the debt limit ratified by Congress with no concessions on the president's part. More recently he's acknowledged he must go along with spending cuts to attract Republican votes. His chief economic adviser, Austan Goolsbee, is unhappy about it. He said last week coupling cuts with the debt limit is "quite insane."

Republicans aren't Obama's only problem. Public opinion is running strongly against boosting the debt limit, and not just among Republicans. In a Resurgent Republic poll, independents (64 to 31 percent) and Democrats (50 to 42 percent) believe spending cuts should be tied to the debt limit.

The president's hand is unusually weak for three additional reasons. As a senator in 2006, Obama voted against boosting the debt limit, offering a high-toned excuse for doing so. That deprives him of moral standing today on the issue. Also, the national debt has soared in his two-plus years in the White House. In 2011, deficit spending is expected to add $1.6 trillion to the national debt, which already exceeds $14 trillion — up from $10.6 trillion when Obama took office. That undercuts his economic standing.

Both Boehner and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell insist the president must agree to "trillions" in spending cuts before they'll support a debt limit increase. Obama may not like this, but in his budget speech last month he proposed $2 trillion in cuts over 12 years. His proposal was vague and may not have been entirely serious, but that was his number. Now Republicans are demanding he agree not only to specific cuts of that size, but to reductions and spending caps and entitlement reforms to their liking.

Obama's best argument, one he cited in his session with Republican senators, is that the government will default on its debt unless the limit is raised, causing an economic collapse. McConnell, for one, is not impressed with this.

The idea the Obama administration will default is "nonsense," he told me. "They're not going to default. No treasury secretary is going to default." McConnell was referring to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who says the government will run out of money to pay debts on August 2.

Republicans are united on the requirement for spending cuts. Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican whip, says there's "not one Republican vote" for increasing the limit "where no cuts are proposed." All 47 Senate Republicans are likely to follow McConnell's lead.

Did Obama get the message from Rubio and his Republican colleagues? Republican senators aren't sure. But McConnell couldn't be clearer. "There is going to be a big package [of cuts] or we'll still be arguing about the debt ceiling this fall," he said. As far as I could tell, he wasn't kidding.

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