Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday that "this is the perfect time to tackle entitlement reform" because both political parties now share power – and responsibility – in Washington, but he said he does not think President Obama is serious about doing so.
"This is the perfect time to tackle entitlement reform. ... We have divided government," McConnell said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "That is, one party doesn't control the entire government. That's the time to do big things. Remember when Reagan and Tip O'Neill fixed Social Security. Remember when Clinton and a Republican Congress did welfare reform. This is the time to do important and difficult stuff."
McConnell was referring to the compromise former President Ronald Reagan made during his first term with then-Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill, a Democrat, to keep Social Security solvent by raising payroll taxes and reducing benefits. Former President Bill Clinton, who ran in 1992 on a promise to reform the welfare system, wasn't able to do it while Democrats controlled Congress, but ended up getting a bill to sign – although one that was not altogether to his liking – after Republicans captured Congress in the 1994 elections.
"We're prepared to do difficult things, but [Obama] must be a part of it because we're not looking at making an issue here," McConnell said. "We're looking at making a law. And that requires the signature of the president of the United States."
As calls for tackling the federal deficit have taken center stage, both Republicans and Democrats have said it will be necessary to get costs under control for huge entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But so far, each side has consistently ducked making any proposals about how to proceed on the subject, which has often been referred to as the "third rail" of politics.
McConnell called the costs of those programs "unsustainable."
But asked if he thought Obama was serious about tackling the issue, McConnell said, "No, I don't."
"What I don't see now is any willingness to do anything that's difficult," McConnell said. "I've a number of conversations with people who count at the White House. And I think that, so far, I don't see the level of seriousness that we need."
White House Chief of Staff William Daley painted a different picture when he was asked on NBC's "Meet the Press" if the White House was playing the political game of "you first" with the Republicans.
"The president doesn't feel that way," Daley said. "The president has had conversations with Speaker Boehner, Leader Cantor, Congresswoman Pelosi, McConnell and Reid -- Senators McConnell and Reid. And he is not going to play the Washington games."
"We've had enough in the last two years," Daley added. "I think the American people are sick and tired of it. They're tired of the partisanship. And if anyone thinks that out of this last election the American people were voting for more partisanship, more saying no, I think they're going to have a rude awakening in the next election."
On the other major budget issue of the day – whether the two parties can avoid a government shutdown after the latest temporary financing measure expires – Daley said, "I'm very optimistic that there will not be a shutdown."
However, the usual fencing continued Sunday between both sides, with Democrats accusing Republicans of being penny-wise and pound-foolish in cutting too deeply into necessary programs, and Republicans accusing Democrats of wanting to spend money the government doesn't have.
Asked about the measure passed by the House to cut $61 billion from the current year's federal budget, Sen. John Kerry (D-.Mass.), said on CBS: "I don't believe what we have from the House is a serious economic plan. I think it's an ideological, extremist, reckless statement. ... I think it's a very dangerous plan."
That brought this retort later from McConnell: "When my friend John Kerry says cutting government spending is reckless, I'm wondering, what planet is he living on?"
Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said he expected the House measure to be put to a vote in the Senate and predicted its defeat.
"My guess is it will not come close to passage," Durbin said on "Fox News Sunday." "It's an indication that we need to get very serious, act like adults, sit down and not lurch from one week or two weeks to two weeks in funding our government. We need to try to reach an agreement on a bipartisan basis. And I hope that after our vote in the Senate, that will happen."