By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON -- Negotiators trying to tame the United States' spiraling debt said on Thursday that they had tentatively agreed on a number of cuts and are now gearing up for tough trade-offs that could lead to trillions of dollars in savings.
"We've gone through a first, serious scrub of each of the categories that make up the total federal budget," Vice President Joe Biden told reporters. "Now we're getting down to the real hard stuff: I'll trade you my bicycle for your golf clubs."
Biden and top Democratic and Republican lawmakers aim to reduce the country's stubborn budget deficits by $4 trillion over the next 10 years in order to give lawmakers the political cover to raise the $14.3 trillion U.S. debt ceiling to prevent a default.
The agreed-upon cuts will serve as bargaining chips in the coming weeks as the two sides tackle a stark divide over taxes and health benefits, participants said.
"Even stuff we agreed to that we may have refined today is all subject to be reopened if we don't get agreement on some of the big issues. We've got a long way to go here," said Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen.
Farm subsidies, federal employee pensions, student loans and the trillion-plus dollars that Congress spends each year on everything from defense to river dredging could come under the knife.
But Republicans have refused to consider increased taxes, while Democrats have resisted wholesale changes to health benefits for the poor and the elderly.
COMPROMISE ON TAXES, HEALTHCARE?
Compromise is not impossible in these areas. Democrats hope to boost tax revenues primarily by ending breaks and closing loopholes, rather than raising rates. Two recent Senate votes have given them heart as Republicans backed closing tax breaks for ethanol providers.
On healthcare, Democrats have blasted a Republican plan that would scale back the Medicare health program for future retirees. But they have proposed less dramatic changes that could still save hundreds of billions of dollars.
Both President Barack Obama and Republicans have proposed significant changes to the Medicaid health program for the poor. Obama has also said he would support limiting medical malpractice lawsuits -- a longtime Republican priority.
"I think we really are covering every type of spending program there is," Representative Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, told reporters. "We are doing all that we have set out to do."
The group is stepping up negotiations as it faces a self-imposed deadline of July 1, with longer and more frequent talks set for next week.
The Obama administration has warned that it will run out of money to pay the nation's bills if Congress does not raise the debt ceiling by August 2 -- a prospect that could push the country back into recession and upend financial markets across the globe.
Washington needs to show investors that it can rise above its dysfunctional reputation, Biden said.
"The single most important thing to do for the markets is convince them no, that's not true, we can handle difficult decisions," he said.
Republicans want at least $2 trillion in cuts, measured over 10 years, to go along with a similar increase in the debt ceiling to ensure Congress doesn't have to revisit the politically toxic issue before the November 2012 elections.
The Biden group could claim another $2 billion in savings by mandating automatic cuts or tax increases if Congress doesn't meet specified deficit targets in coming years.
Budget deficits in recent years have hovered at their highest level relative to the economy since World War Two. The deficit is projected to hit $1.4 trillion in the fiscal year that ends September 30.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Eric Walsh)
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