Susan Davis, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - A brief reprieve on imminent budget deadlines is providing Republicans and Democrats alike an opportunity to regroup for the next fiscal debate that will dominate the spring and come to a head this summer: increasing the nation's ability to borrow money to pay its bills.
Negotiations to raise the debt ceiling are increasingly linked to an ongoing debate over how to revamp the nation's social safety net to help reduce the deficit.
"The notion that it's somehow irresponsible to have a discussion about the debt when you're being asked to raise the debt ceiling is completely wrong," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in late March, citing warnings from Medicare and Social Security trustees about the long-term sustainability of the social programs. "The time to act is now."
President Obama's decision to include certain Social Security and Medicare changes in his budget headed to Capitol Hill this week will reinvigorate a debate congressional Republicans are eager to have. White House officials said Friday the budget will include a proposal to use a stingier method of calculating Social Security benefits as well as reductions in Medicare spending, mainly by reducing payments to health care providers.
The GOP wants to save money in Social Security and Medicare programs without raising any more taxes. Obama is open to certain entitlement changes if revenue is part of a deal. Many congressional Democrats are wary of any entitlement changes that Republicans support.
Obama's budget reflect earlier concessions made in negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, but those negotiations stalled late last year. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Friday that the president's budget is a goodwill gesture intended to restart talks with Republicans.
"This is not the president's ideal budget proposal. It is a budget proposal that represents a good-faith compromise position that reflects the offer he made to the speaker of the House that was widely seen as a compromise," Carney said.
Obama has stepped up his engagement with lawmakers recently as part of that effort. He is scheduled to have dinner with a group of GOP senators the same day his budget is formally released.
The debt ceiling vote is the next fiscal deadline that will force Washington to act, and the most likely vehicle for a compromise on the horizon.
Congress returns this week from a two-week recess. As the Democratic-controlled Senate focuses on gun and immigration legislation, House Republicans are continuing their efforts to build their case for trimming Medicare and Social Security in exchange for their votes to raise the debt ceiling.
The debt ceiling does not authorize new spending, but rather pays for commitments the government has already made, from Social Security checks to military pensions.
Defaulting on the U.S. debt is unprecedented and threatens to rattle the global economy. Boehner tamped down suggestions that the House GOP would allow a default telling reporters before the break: "Remember, our goal here isn't to default on our debts, not to shut down our government. Our goal here is to get this country on a path to balance its budget over the next 10 years."
In January, House Republicans orchestrated a temporarily suspension of the $16.4 trillion debt limit through mid-May in order to allow Washington to get through budget season before resuming the debate. Both the House and Senate approved competing partisan blueprints last month.
Boehner says the House will not approve additional debt ceiling increases unless they are offset by equal or greater spending cuts or changes - and Republicans argue that entitlement programs are the remaining piece of the puzzle for deficit reduction.
Two years of budget battles between the president and a divided Congress has already extracted about $2.4 trillion in deficit reduction, including spending cuts and tax increases, over the next decade. The on-going impasse over the unpopular across-the-board spending cuts, known as the sequester, is set to trim an additional $1.2 trillion more over the next decade.
The result, Republicans argue, is the only substantial place left to go for more savings are entitlement programs that have been largely left untouched in prior budget battles. Democrats contend that there is still more revenue to be had in closing tax loopholes and making moderate adjustments to social programs.
Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., who chairs a powerful House panel that has jurisdiction over these programs, announced the panel will convene a series of hearings in April on proposals supported previously by Obama and his fiscal commission, including changing the way Social Security benefits are calculated, raising the Medicare eligibility age, and charging wealthy seniors more for their benefits.
At the same time, Rep. Charles Boustany, R-La., a member of Camp's committee, will hold an April 10 hearing to examine the government's ability to operate if the debt hits its legal limit - a signal of willingness among some Republicans for confrontation with the president over the issue.
Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., however, told CNN last Thursday that Republicans would not push the nation into default. "I do believe that we can make sure that default is not going to happen," he said.
White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer acknowledged at a breakfast hosted by Politico last week that changes in entitlement programs backed by Obama will meet resistance among rank-and-file Democrats who don't feel the same way. "Not everyone in our party agrees with our approach to entitlements," he said, "They don't agree with some of the things we're willing to do."
The debate over tying the debt ceiling vote to overhauling entitlements and closing tax loopholes will continue through the spring and crescendo this summer, McConnell said.