By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top congressional Republicans on Sunday suggested they could compromise on the two biggest issues -- healthcare and taxes -- that stand in the way of a deal to get the United States' debt under control.
Representative Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House of Representatives Budget Committee, said he would "absolutely" be willing to negotiate with Democrats on his plan to control healthcare costs.
Separately, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell did not rule out a tax increase -- a contrast to other Republican leaders who have insisted that any deal to increase the country's borrowing authority must consist of spending cuts alone.
"We're not going to do the deal here this morning," McConnell said on Fox News, when asked if a deal could include revenue increases.
The United States reached its $14.3 trillion debt limit last week, and the Treasury Department will juggle accounts, including federal retirement funds, to pay the country's bills until early August, when it must borrow again.
But without legislative authority to raise the debt ceiling, the Treasury cannot issue more debt and would default on its obligations, which experts say would push the country back into recession and roil markets across the globe.
Republicans and some Democrats say they won't back a ceiling increase that does not include steps to slow the growth of the debt load, which has more than doubled over the past decade.
In talks led by Vice President Joe Biden, top lawmakers have agreed to at least $150 billion in spending cuts, but that's far short of the $4 trillion in deficit reduction that outside experts say is needed to stabilize the debt over a 10-year span.
On healthcare, the two sides are separated by a gulf of trillions of dollars. The Republican-controlled House has passed a budget, authored by Ryan, that would save $2.2 trillion by scaling back Medicaid and Medicare, the government-run health plans for the poor and elderly, and repeal President Barack Obama's signature health reform program, the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
Obama, in turn, has proposed saving $480 billion by accelerating reforms in the program -- a nonstarter for Republicans who insist it must be repealed.
DIFFERENT VIEWS ON TAX INCREASES
On taxes, the two sides differ by $1.8 trillion as Obama would raise taxes on the wealthy, while Ryan would lower them.
Polls show that Ryan's budget is unpopular with voters because of its dramatic healthcare changes and it is expected to fail in the Democratic-controlled Senate this week. McConnell said he is not urging his fellow Republicans to support it.
"We have other budgets that Republicans are pushing," McConnell said. "We're not going to be able to coalesce behind just one."
With the 2012 election season underway, Ryan's plan has already imperiled the presidential hopes of one Republican, Newt Gingrich, who faced a fierce conservative backlash last week after he described it as "right-wing social engineering."
Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," Ryan said that any candidate who shies away from reforming healthcare and other benefits is not entitled to be president and criticized Democrats for attacking his plan rather than putting forward solutions of their own.
He said compromise was possible -- reversing an earlier stance that a deal on healthcare would not be reachable until after the election.
"Of course, absolutely," Ryan said, when asked if he would be open to negotiation. "Of course we would, this is the legislative process. But let me be clear: We are the only ones who have put out a plan."
Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen, a participant in the Biden talks who is also the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said the Democrats had proposed savings in the Obama's healthcare program and could find more by lowering the price the government pays for prescription drugs, rather than scaling back benefits for patients.
Van Hollen repeated Democrats' contention that any debt-reduction plan requires higher taxes, saying Republicans' reluctance to them forced Ryan to push his unpopular cuts to Medicare and Medicaid.
"You can't do it with a one sided, lopsided approach," he said on "Meet the Press." "The reason why it's such bad politics is because it's terrible policy."
(Editing by Philip Barbara)
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