*McConnell already eyeing his next bite at the apple

MCCONNELL ALREADY EYEING HIS NEXT BITE AT THE APPLE…. As difficult as the ongoing discussion over budget cuts is, it’s important to remember that it’s only the first in a series of related fights.

As we talked about on Monday, we’re looking at a multi-step process. Republicans are demanding deep cuts now, to fund the government for the rest of the fiscal year. They’ll then demand more deep cuts to extend the debt limit. They’ll then demand even more deep cuts in the next budget fight, which is already starting before this budget fight is done. All of the cuts are likely to do real damage to working families and the economy, but the GOP’s priorities lie elsewhere right now.

With this in mind, as the fight over the fiscal year continues, the Senate Minority Leader, as promised, is already gearing up for round two.

Senate Republicans will not support an increase to the federal debt limit unless the president vows to tackle the nation’s debt, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Friday.

In an interview with The Associated Press, the Senate Republican leader made clear that the support of the 47 GOP senators will be contingent on major debt reduction talks, making his opening offer in what is expected to be another hot fiscal debate in Congress.

“Republicans in the Senate will not be voting to raise the debt ceiling unless we do something significant about the debt,” McConnell said. “I don’t think he has to lay out in public exactly what he’s willing to do, but we need to begin serious discussions, and time’s a-wasting.”

In particular, McConnell said he’s looking for “reform” of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, as part of the discussion about the debt limit.

McConnell was, of course, vague about his demands. He’ll hold the debt limit — and by extension, the global economy — hostage unless “something significant” is done, but McConnell hasn’t said publicly what will satisfy him enough to drop the threat.

But as ugly as things are, the Minority Leader’s remarks are a reminder that matters are likely to get even uglier still. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently warned congressional Republicans not to “play around with” a coming vote to raise the government’s legal borrowing limit, adding that lawmakers shouldn’t view the debt ceiling as a “bargaining chip.”

McConnell prefers to ignore this advice.

Also keep in mind, time is of the essence. The Treasury expects to hit the debt ceiling sometime between April 15 and the end of May. Presumably, policymakers will have to reach some sort of agreement on the current fiscal-year budget and then immediately start hostage talks on the debt limit.

Postscript: I’d be remiss if I neglected to mention how amusing it is to hear Mitch McConnell express concern about the debt. The Kentucky Republican voted for the Bush tax cuts, and added the costs to the national debt. McConnell then voted to finance the war in Afghanistan by adding the costs to the national debt. He then voted to put the costs of the war in Iraq onto the national debt. McConnell supported a massive expansion of the government’s role in health care, Medicare Part D, and voted to pile all of its costs right onto the national debt, and then backed the financial industry bailout, and added the bill to the national debt. All the while, McConnell had no qualms about voting to raise the debt limit.

But now McConnell is willing to risk default unless Democrats agree to a plan to help clean up the mess McConnell helped create. Fascinating.