Q&A: Mitch McConnell Explains How to Get a ‘Really Big Deal’ on the Debt Ceiling

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Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

One day after Congress rejected a $2.4 trillion increase of the federal borrowing limit without preconditional spending cuts, House Republicans are visiting the White House on Wednesday to negotiate directly with President Obama on the deficit reduction measures that will likely accompany the next debt ceiling vote. The top leaders of both parties, including the President,  have been largely absent from the deficit talks currently being conducted by Vice President Joe Biden, but as the August deadline draws closer, their direct input may be the only thing that can advance negotiations. On Thursday, May 19, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sat down with TIME to discuss a wide variety of subjects. Below are lightly edited excerpts of his remarks on the debt ceiling and deficit reduction negotiations.

TIME: Deficit reduction in the past has always required both sides to make sacrifices and then jump together. What are you willing to give up?

McConnell: It is true that divided government is the only government that can do transformational, difficult things… One thing I do tell my members is: whatever we do with this President is not going to be an issue in the next election. Because when you do it with divided government, no one can take advantage of whatever the difficult part of it was. You saw that on display with [Ronald] Reagan and Tip O’Neill on tax reform in ‘83, Bill Clinton and the Republicans on welfare reform in ‘96. And, you know, balancing the budget in the late 90’s was not easy; that was done by Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress. So, I view this discussion surrounding the debt ceiling as actually an opportunity, an opportunity to do something important for the American people and to actually get a result. And those discussions are under way and I’m hoping that they can lead to something that I can recommend to my members and that at least most of them will conclude that it is an important accomplishment for the country… Most of my members believe that the debt crisis is actually here and this is the opportunity to deal with it. So I hope it’ll be a big moment for the country, but I can’t tell you for sure yet, that that’s the way it’s going to turn out.

But by drawing the line in the sand now, saying you won’t raise taxes under any circumstances, where is the sacrifice?

Well, the question is: What is good for the country to do? We’re in this dilemma not because we taxed too little but because we spent too much. I read the other day that 51% of Americans don’t even pay income tax. I mean we need to do some kind of comprehensive tax reform which we’re not going to do in connection with the deficit, that’s a much more complicated process that will have to go on a while. But we don’t have this debt problem because of inadequate revenue. Revenue has been relatively constant.

So, what sacrifice are you willing to make?

Well, I’m not prepared to negotiate the deal with you. I’m happy to be sitting here talking to you, but these are the kinds of things that are going on in the Biden-Kyl-Cantor meetings that will lead, I hope, to a comprehensive proposal. I’ll be delighted to explain to you why I decided to support it or oppose it depending on where we end up.

When do the top leaders get involved? Right now you have all the No. 2s at the table.

Well, we are involved.

How so?

I have total trust and confidence in Jon Kyl and it won’t surprise you that we talk about what’s going on at the meetings.

Do you talk to Vice President Biden?

I do.

How often?

Fairly often.

Once a week, twice a week?

[Laughs] Fairly often.

When was the last time you spoke to him.

[Laughing] Today.

Do you talk about these issues?

We talk about these and other issues. The Vice President and I have a good relationship. He’s a very smart guy and he’s well positioned to help the President particularly in the Senate. Having served here a long time, a lot of us know him and he’s somebody that you can do business with.

Is Barack Obama somebody that you can do business with?

Yeah. I just don’t know him as well as I know Biden. And the President, I think, also smartly picked the Vice President to work on some of these things where interaction with members of Congress is a good thing to have, and Joe’s been doing that a long time, so he’s kind of a familiar figure.

Without tax increases or tax reform, how much can you really do in this window? Won’t most of the deficit reduction plan be left until 2013?

There’s a lot you can do. I think we’d all like to tackle tax reform. But a lot of the spade work, if you will, has already been done. The deficit reduction commission studied all of these issue thoroughly. There are options laying right there on the table. We don’t need any more hearings, we don’t need any more mark ups. The question is: Which combination of these things are we going to agree to do on a bipartisan basis, and the second issue is: How do you get it passed? Well, the way you get it passed is in connection with the debt ceiling vote. Some thing the President has asked us to do, something he feels he has to have something only we can ultimately give him enough votes to pass, so this is the moment of maximum leverage.

So, you envision a really big deal?

It’s going to take a really big deal to get the debt ceiling raised.

How big? More than $2 trillion?

I’m not going to answer that, you know. Good try.

So you’re rejecting the concept of a down payment?

Well, inevitably anything to do with this area is a down payment. Because, you’re not going to solve every problem in connection with this. But, we have a sense of what the biggest problems are. We have a sense of what it would take to convince the markets, foreign countries. And the American people would be truly astonished if we actually indicated that the adults were truly in charge here and we’re going to get out country on a glide path to getting straightened out – I think we have a sense of what it would take to do that, but I’m not going to lay it out piece by piece for you. So… [laughs]

Some of your GOP colleagues have suggested doing this in smaller bites. Are we going to be having this discussion again this time next year?

Well, the issue of how much and how long is part of the negotiation. How much of a period of time does the debt ceiling occur – all of that will be part of the discussion. It will depend on what we agree to in these discussions because the length of what we agree to will be one of the items under discussion.

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