Aug 8, 2011 9:48 PM
WINCHESTER. (AP) - Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell called Monday for "significant entitlement reform" to help rein in federal spending in his first town hall meeting with home-state constituents since a deal was reached on the debt ceiling just over a week ago.
McConnell, speaking to business leaders in Winchester, said the changes are necessary to preserve Medicare and Social Security.
"We have to adjust the trajectory of these very significant entitlement programs, or they're not going to be there at all," he said during a question-and-answer session that ended with a standing ovation.
Asked at one point about the debt ceiling negotiations with President Barack Obama and other Democratic leaders, McConnell offered only praise.
"These are very smart people," he said. "It's just that there are different views of what America ought to be, and so it's hard to come to an agreement. ...We don't hate each other. Everybody around the table, I think, was trying to advocate things that they believed were in the best interest of the country."
McConnell has traditionally held town-hall meetings, a staple of American politics, to explain positions he has taken on issues and to give home-state voters a chance to register criticism or praise. In this case, McConnell received the latter.
Susan Bishop, chairwoman of the Winchester-Clark County Chamber of Commerce, said Kentucky's senior senator was "frank and honest" in sharing his insights on one of the most important political dramas to play out in Washington in recent history. "I was very impressed," she said.
McConnell has been credited in the press with playing a vital role in resolving the debt ceiling crisis by helping to arrange a compromise that also cuts government spending and opens the door to overhauls of Medicare and Social Security.
His staffers have been circulating newspaper articles flattering to McConnell, including one from The Washington Post that touted his political acumen.
"... The crisis seemed to demand the involvement of someone with the personal gravitas, political acumen and institutional leverage to move the process toward a final deal," the newspaper reported. "The moment called out for Mitch McConnell."
McConnell told the Winchester group that the talks were long and intense, and that he's glad they're over.
"We're sick of each other," he said, drawing chuckles.
McConnell said he expects a 12-member panel to be appointed by Republican and Democratic congressional leaders to be key to his hoped for overhaul of entitlements. That group, created during the debt ceiling debate, will be charged with recommending at least $1.5 trillion in cuts over the next decade, and to make those recommendations by late November.
McConnell said he wants the panel "to come back with a wholly significant entitlement reform."
"Anyone who tells you we don't need to do anything with entitlements is not telling you the truth," he said. "They are clearly on an unsustainable path."
Changing that path, McConnell said, won't be easy.
"Getting a handle on this is going to be like turning an ocean liner," he said. "...You've got to slowly begin to turn it in a different direction."
McConnell also said Standard & Poor's ratings downgrade on the federal government "is in some ways helpful."
"It certainly raises the stakes for getting this job done," he said.
"Nobody is arguing that we don't have a very, very serious financial problem, and I'm hoping that's going to provide enough incentive over a multi-year period of time, no matter who's in power, to continue."
McConnell also reassured current retirees that they're not at risk of losing Social Security benefits, though changes in the program will be necessary for future recipients.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)