In the fights over the fiscal cliff and now the debt ceiling, many conservatives were adamant: Republicans should reach an agreement with President Obama only in exchange for serious cuts in entitlement spending. It is the entitlements — Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security — that will drive future deficits, the conservatives argued, and without real cuts, the nation’s debt will spiral out of control in the not-too-distant future.
Some Republican lawmakers have been stressing that point for weeks and demanding that the president agree to “real cuts” before any deal could be struck. But what has emerged from the House GOP retreat in Williamsburg, Virginia is that Republicans did not have an entitlement-cutting proposal to present to Obama in debt-ceiling talks, had the president ever agreed to negotiate with them. The talk about big entitlement cuts, at least in connection with a debt-ceiling agreement, was mostly talk.
Now, by deciding to pass a short-term debt-limit bill, and at the same time demand that Democrats pass a budget — something Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has not allowed in nearly four years — Republicans have sidestepped the entitlement issue altogether, at least for a while. That might have been the GOP’s only option, since it had not agreed on an entitlement-cutting proposal.
House Republicans placed themselves on the side of entitlement reform when they voted for the Ryan budget. But the Ryan budget was a far-reaching, intricately interconnected plan that addressed not only entitlement spending but taxes and revenues and more. It was not a proposal that Republicans could just throw at the president and say, Here, this is our position. As for the actions on entitlements that might have been part of GOP demands for a debt-ceiling deal, says one participant in the Williamsburg meeting: “Long term, those have to be figured out. But my sense of that is that it is not going to happen in ten days. This is complex, important.” In other words, there was no plan for major entitlement cuts as part of the debt-limit strategy.
Rather than come up with their own plan for extensive entitlement cuts, Republicans considered focusing on some smaller proposals that Obama has spoken of favorably in the past and has now abandoned. If the debate had reached a discussion of entitlements, it’s likely the GOP would have latched onto those and pushed for the president to live by his own words.
None of this means Republicans didn’t discuss among themselves some possible options for cutting entitlements. “There were a lot of discussions about cuts and what to cut,” says another Republican who has been involved in the process. “Fifty-five and above was discussed. What could we get and where were discussed.” But discussing does not mean agreeing on a plan. And the bottom line is that if President Obama had had an incredible change of mind and said to Republicans, “OK, you’re right. I will negotiate. And we need to cut entitlements. What’s your plan?” the GOP would have had little to offer beyond what Obama himself has already said.