SHEPHERDSVILLE — Sen. Mitch McConnell blamed spending by the federal government for the country’s economic problems in a speech to a Bullitt County Chamber of Commerce audience here Tuesday, calling for an increase in the eligibility age for Social Security and Medicare.
He said the country’s challenge is reducing its federal debt and the only way to do that is to rein in spending on popular middle class programs like Medicare and Social Security, and vowing to “not to spend a penny more than we promised the American people” in the Budget Control Act which included the sequester cuts now under way.
He called Social Security and Medicare “very, very popular programs which you all like,” but then said, “You have to make the eligibility . . . fit the demographics of this country” by raising the retirement age.
He pointed to a deal in the 1980s between then Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill on Social Security which increased the retirement age. He didn’t mention the deal also increased contributions by employees and employers and raised the maximum income on which payroll taxes are paid.
McConnell, who is up for re-election next year, made the comments on the same day a Democratic-leaning pollster, Public Policy Polling, released a survey showing McConnell tied 45-45 in a potential head-to-head match-up with Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Grimes is being encouraged by many Democrats, including Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Congressman John Yarmuth, D-Third District, to challenge McConnell.
She has said she will not be pushed into a decision. (Owensboro contractor Ed Marksberry and Louisville music promoter Bennie Smith are the only declared Democratic candidates so far.)
Democratic consultant Dale Emmons of Richmond, who is close to Grimes’ and her father, former Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman Jerry Lundergan, said the PPS poll numbers are “consistent with what we’ve seen before,” showing more voters view McConnell unfavorably than favorably.
But Emmons said he doesn’t know when or what Grimes may decide.
The poll included a question suggesting McConnell has supported cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Half the respondents said that made them less likely to vote for McConnell. Half also agreed with the statement that McConnell “is part of the problem in Washington, D.C., and has forgotten about the people of Kentucky.”
McConnell didn’t take questions from reporters after talking to the chamber group, brushing by as he left, but his remarks to the chamber group addressed both questions, at least in part.
He told the audience that while he disagrees with President Barack Obama he has helped broker three major deals: the Budget Control Act, extending the Bush tax cuts for all but the wealthy, and avoiding the fiscal cliff at the end of last year.
McConnell said he made those deals on Republican grounds, perhaps trying to send a message to the tea party on his right.
“So yeah, I made a deal with the administration that I thought was based on Republican values,” McConnell said. He said although Obama isn’t his choice for president, he’s willing to “do business with him if it makes sense for the country.”
But McConnell reserved most of his criticism for government spending — he held up charts showing projected spending outpacing revenues even if Obama were to secure additional tax revenues — and for the Affordable Healthcare Act, or as he calls it, “Obamacare.”
The charts, he claimed, demonstrate the problem can’t be solved with more revenue, only by reducing spending. He called the ACA “the single worst idea of our time.”
He had a sympathetic audience, including Melanie Douglas of Shepherdsville who owns a cleaning company, Service Master, which employs between 65 and 70 people, and a Quiznos restaurant which employs nine more.
Douglas complained about a provision of the ACA which requires her to provide insurance for all her employees because of the overall total number rather than treating the nine employees of Quiznos separately. She said she’ll reduce their work time to less than 30 hours to avoid that requirement because the restaurant “isn’t making any money or is just breaking even.”
“That does not make any sense because the business with nine employees, it can’t afford health insurance,” Douglass said.
“You made my point better than I did,” McConnell said to applause when Douglass finished telling him of her concerns.
Douglas later said she also does not provide insurance to the 65 to 70 workers at Service Master.
McConnell didn’t spend a lot of time on the subjects dominating news in Washington: revelations about IRS targeting of some conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status; attacks on the consulate in Benghazi; and subpoenas of Associated Press phone records in an investigation of national security leaks.
He said those and other alleged abuses by the administration add up to “an arrogance of power” by the Obama administration.
McConnell gave a one-word answer to a question about new restrictions on gun ownership.
“No,” McConnell said.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.