WASHINGTON -- The battle lines are forming in Congress over raising the federal debt limit this summer, with Republican leaders seeking changes to entitlements like Medicare while Democrats say tax increases must be part of any long-term fix.
At the same time, Democrats vilify "breaking the promise of Medicare," while Republicans say tax hikes are off the table.
But a real long-term solution to the nation's debt woes could affect far more than Medicare and tax breaks for millionaires and oil companies. Indeed, everyone could end up paying more and getting less, if solutions proposed by think tanks, commissions, congressional caucuses and interest groups from both ends of the political spectrum are any indication.
Some of the options proposed in more than a dozen studies are: a national sales tax; a "debt reduction" income tax surcharge; eliminating or capping deductions for charitable contributions, mortgage interest and state and local taxes; raising the retirement age and taxable wage base while cutting the growth of benefits in Social Security and Medicare; and cutting veterans health benefits, environmental protection, food inspectors, school lunches and weapons systems.
The scale of what must happen to keep debt manageable becomes clear on an Internet "simulator" created by a bipartisan think tank, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
At the website - crfb.org/stabilizethedebt - the public can choose from a menu of 90 cuts and increases to spending, taxes and entitlements and try to bring the projected national debt to a safe level.
Willing to cut the number of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq from 195,000 to 30,000 by 2013? You'll save $1 billion. Want to make permanent tax cuts that are scheduled to expire? That'll cost $3.4 billion.
A stable debt level is defined as 60 percent of the gross domestic product, which is the total output of the United States economy. According to the committee, "reasonable assumptions" show debt growing to 89 percent of GDP by 2020; 127 percent by 2030, 182 percent by 2040, and 246 percent by 2050.
That much debt means interest payments will crowd out other spending, make it more expensive for homebuyers to get mortgages and businesses to get loans, and make the United States unattractive to foreign investment and more vulnerable to financial collapse.
Driving long-term debt growth is an aging population and health care costs, especially in federal programs that the government says citizens are entitled to receive regardless of how much money is in the budget. Interest combined with spending for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid account for 47 cents out of every dollar spent by the government today, but by 2022 those costs will exceed all federal revenue.
At that point, everything else -- defense, highways, education and disaster relief -- would have to be borrowed.
No simple solutions
There are no simple solutions, according to the leaders of the Bipartisan Policy Center's debt reduction task force, former Republican Sen. Pete Domenici and former Clinton administration budget director Alice Rivlin.
They told the Senate Budget Committee last month that trying to tackle the problem only by cutting non-defense discretionary spending by 2021 would require eliminating just about everything else.
Economic growth will bring deficits down, but there would have to be 6 percent growth a year for 10 years, and there's never been a decade since World War II where growth was more than 4.4 percent, they said.
And simply taxing the wealthy would require setting the top brackets at unrealistic levels of 86 percent and 91 percent.
"The only hope is for the two parties to come together around a bipartisan plan - which liberals, moderates and conservatives alike see as fair - and work together to make it a reality," Domenici and Rivlin said in their written testimony to the committee.
Whether that can happen is anyone's guess. Every spending program or tax break has a constituency, and members of Congress who want to serve it.
Curtailing the deduction for state and local taxes, for example, would save $470 billion, according to the debt simulator. But that kind of cut would hit hardest in places like New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and California, where state and local taxes are very high.
Congress has already shown how difficult making cuts can be. The bipartisan budget deal that kept the government operating last month eliminated a major defense program that had two competing teams of contractors building an engine for a new military fighter jet.
President Barack Obama and George W. Bush before him tried to pick just one contractor to build the engine, but Congress continued funding both until last month. On Thursday, the Republican-dominated House Armed Services Committee tried to resurrect the second engine.
Federal aid to strapped cities and towns for police salaries has also drawn bipartisan backing. In February, Republicans broke ranks with their leaders and supported a Democratic amendment to put back funding that deficit hawks had sought to cut.
On Friday, Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., stood with several colleagues outside the capital with police officers from around the country to announce a bill to extend the police subsidies, which are due to expire.
Asked how the federal government could keep subsidizing other levels of government when it can't afford its own programs, Pascrell said flatly:
"It has to. We're going to make cuts. There's no question about it. But we're not going to cut essential services. And to me, fire protection, police protection (are) essential services, and I'm going to do everything in my power to keep every dime in there because I know it's necessary to keep America safe," he said.