McConnell puts Medicare in the ransom note

The Republican debt-ceiling strategy hasn’t been subtle: GOP officials are threatening to cause a recession, on purpose, unless Democrats give them the spending cuts they want. It’s Hostage Taking 101.

The trick has been identifying the ransom. Republicans have said they expect “something big” in exchange for doing what they obviously have to do anyway, but they’ve been vague about the details. “Meet our demands or we’ll kill the hostage.” What are your demands? “We’re not sure; why don’t you offer something and we’ll get back to you.”

In recent weeks, the details have gotten a little clearer, with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) saying he expects $2 trillion in cuts or he’ll deliberately cause an economic catastrophe. But even that’s too vague — no one knows where the $2 trillion should come from or over how long.

Today, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went much further in clarifying what’s on the ransom note.

In a Capitol briefing with reporters Friday, McConnell declared affirmatively that unspecified Medicare cuts are on the table in bipartisan debt limit negotiations, led by Vice President Joe Biden, and he expects they’ll be part of the final deal. But in response to a question from TPM, he went further than he has in the past in laying down a marker on that issue. Medicare cuts must be part of that deal to get his support, he says — even if negotiators manage to find trillions of dollars in savings elsewhere, even if his other priorities are met.

“To get my vote, for me, it’s going to take short term [cuts, via spending caps]… Both medium and long-term, entitlements.,” McConnell said. “Medicare will be part of the solution.”

To clarify, I asked “[I]f [the Biden group] comes up with big cuts, trillions of dollars worth of cuts, but without substantially addressing Medicare, it won’t get your vote?”

“Correct,” McConnell said.

This is no small admission. The Senate’s leading Republican is saying, publicly and on the record, that without Medicare cuts, he’ll try to create an economic calamity on purpose.

The obvious question, at this point, is what kind of cuts McConnell has in mind, and whether (and how much) it would affect benefits for the elderly. Maybe the Senate Minority Leader doesn’t have the policy chops to talk about his ideas for reductions in any depth, or maybe he’s just saving it for the negotiating table.

Either way, it’s a fairly big deal. In fact, now that McConnell has admitted it, Democrats should probably let the public know. The talking point isn’t complicated: Senate Republicans will create a recession unless Democrats agree to Medicare cuts.

Of course, the talking point will ineffective if Dems decide to go along with McConnell’s hostage strategy and pay the ransom.