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Lawmakers at Impasse Over 7-Month Budget; Redirect Focus to Benefit Programs

Biden Budget

March 3: Vice President Joe Biden arrives to meet with House and Senate leaders to discuss the federal budget, at the Capitol in Washington. (AP)

WASHINGTON -- President Obama isn't serious about dealing with government spending and the deficit, the Senate's top Republican argued Sunday as lawmakers took to the airwaves to shout past each other about where and how much spending to cut in the government's wildly bloated budget.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that after a number of conversations with Obama and Vice President Biden, he is not optimistic the president will take the opportunity provided by a Republican-led House to look for areas of compromise on spending cuts. 

"I was hopeful that we would step up to the plate here, if you will, and use this divided government opportunity to do something big about our long-term problems. I don't have any more complaints about no conversations with them. I've had plenty of conversations with them. What I don't see now is any willingness to do anything that's difficult," McConnell said on NBC's "Face the Nation."

With two votes in the Senate expected to fail this week, the clock is ticking to get a budget in place before the March 18 deadline for a government shutdown. The previous March 4 deadline was extended for two weeks after House Republicans agreed to give the Senate more time to debate their proposal to chop $61 billion from "current" operating numbers. Those current numbers are left over from 2010, since the Democratic-led Congress did not pass a budget for 2011 even though the budget year began last Oct. 1.

The White House has said it will meet Republicans halfway on spending cuts, but Republicans say they are only about one-sixth of the way there -- proposing $10.5 billion in cuts on a $3.7 trillion budget proposal for the coming year that is already $1.65 trillion in the red.

"These are the same guys that said if we adapted a stimulus package, unemployment would never go above 8 percent. Please," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said on ABC's "This Week." 

"Unless we get our fiscal house in order, we are facing a calamity, there's no way you can avoid that," he said.

Democrats, on the other hand, accuse Republicans of wanting to chop in places that will end up killing jobs and hurting the economy. 

"I can tell you personally I'm willing to see more deficit reduction, but not out of domestic discretionary spending. When you're cutting education, innovation and infrastructure, you're not dealing with the reality of this recession," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the majority whip.

"I don't believe what we have from the House is a serious economic plan," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said on CBS. "I think it's an ideological, extremist, reckless statement. If that were to be in fact put in place, it would contribute to the reversal of our recovery. ... It sets back GDP. We will lose 700,000, 200,000, 500,000 jobs, whatever we lose, 200 to 700, it moves against the recovery that we've worked so hard to achieve."

Both Democrats noted that Republicans cut from discretionary spending only, which makes up just 12 percent of the budget.  Instead, they suggested, Congress look at entitlement spending. 

"If you believe that you're going to balance the budget by cutting just 12 percent of the budget down to balance, it is literally, figuratively, impossible," Durbin said. "You can't cut your way out of our crisis; you can't tax your way out of our crisis. You have to deal with this, in its entirety, and we have to think our way out of it."

But McConnell said it's the White House that is in denial about the sustainability of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, which collectively make up about 43 percent of the federal budget. He agreed that "this is the perfect time to tackle entitlement reform." 

"Look, this is a good place to start. But it's just a pebble in the ocean to what we need to do," he said. 

"The Congressional Budget Office said (Social Security)'s running a $50 billion deficit this very year," McConnell added. "Our priorities are out of whack. When my friend John Kerry says cutting government spending is reckless, I'm wondering, what planet is he living on?" 

White House Chief of Staff William Daley countered that Social Security isn't the big driver of the deficit right now. Instead, Medicare and Medicaid are ratcheting up the debt level, which is now More than $14 trillion, nearly equal to the entire annual U.S. economy. 

"We have an aging population, increased health care costs. And we also say, you know, there's been much debate, much conversation around the health care plan, the affordable care act; that according to the Congressional Budget Office, will reduce our deficit by over $1 trillion over the next 20 years," Daley said.

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who followed Daley on NBC's "Meet the Press," countered that spending isn't going to decrease when the health care law bakes in additional costs. 

"Secretly unbeknownst to members of Congress, over $105 billion was hidden in the Obamacare legislation to fund the implementation of Obamacare. ... We have taken one step forward and two steps back, because we've found now that $105 billion," Bachmann said. 

"We were also told that our premiums would go down $2,500, and instead they're spiking up by 20 and 40 percent. This has been a fraud," she added.

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, chairman of the House Republican Conference, said he'd like to work with Democrats to reform entitlement programs, starting with "grandfathering all the grandparents." But that conversation can't begin when Democrats refuse to discuss an immediate budget deal. 

"Now Dick says everything has to be on the table, but under their plan, nothing is on the table," said Hensarling, who appeared with Durbin on "Fox News Sunday." "When Dick talks about, or accuses us of draconian cuts, yes, this is 2.5 percent, roughly, of the entire federal budget. They're willing to do nothing."