That search could start, Cantor said, with a list of GOP proposals that would save $715 billion over the next decade by ending payments to wealthy farmers, limiting lawsuits against doctors, and expanding government auctions of broadcast spectrum to telecommunications companies, among other items.
Democrats said they were encouraged by the move, which could smooth the way to a compromise allowing Congress to raise the legal limit on government borrowing and avoid a national default.
“There’s common ground there,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, who is representing House Democrats in the Biden talks.
The conciliatory tone signals the opening of a new and more consequential phase in the battle to design an affordable government for an aging society. After months of partisan brinkmanship over comparatively small cuts to the current budget, lawmakers returned to Washington this week to confront the harder problem of reducing a national debt that has risen to alarming levels.
They face a tight deadline: Without congressional action, the debt will hit the legal limit of $14.3 trillion in the next two weeks. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner has said he can juggle the books and pay the bills through Aug. 2. But at that point, the U.S. government would risk a default on its obligations and economic disaster.
Congressional leaders in both parties, eager to avoid that outcome, are dispatching representatives to the Biden talks to try to hash out a debt-reduction accord that would make it easier for lawmakers to cast a politically difficult vote for additional borrowing.
Even the more austere spending plan drafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and approved last month by the House would require an increase in the debt ceiling of about $1.9 trillion to cover the government’s bills through September 2012.
With voters growing increasingly anxious about the debt, Republicans and some Democrats are refusing to approve additional borrowing without an explicit strategy to reduce deficit spending. Raising the debt limit will be particularly difficult in the House, where the Republican majority is dominated by conservatives who have vowed to oppose any additional borrowing.
In the Biden talks, Cantor said, he would press for all the provisions in the Ryan proposal, including changes to Medicare and Medicaid that would produce hundreds of billions of dollars in savings and dramatically transform both programs. He challenged Obama to provide specifics of his own deficit-reduction plan, which calls for modest changes to the programs. But with Democrats showing no inclination to engage seriously on entitlements, Cantor said, the Ryan budget offers many other avenues for compromise.