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TOP GOP SENATOR WANTS CUTS AND MEDICARE REFORM

WASHINGTON - The top Republican in the Senate said Thursday it will take cuts both to agencies' day-to-day budgets and to long-term spending on programs like Medicare and Medicaid to win his vote to permit the government to keep going into debt to meet its obligations.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., issued his demands after a Thursday morning meeting with President Barack Obama.

McConnell said the need to raise the so-called debt ceiling is a "major opportunity" for Republicans and Democrats to come together and do something about the spiraling national debt.

The Kentucky Republican is likely to be a key figure in the negotiations. He said tax increases won't be part of any deficit solutions this year. He also acknowledged that changes to Social Security won't be part of any agreement of raising the debt limit above the current $14.3 trillion cap.

While not supporting specifics, McConnell cited the work of Obama's deficit commission, which recommended cuts to farm subsidies, curbing student loan subsidies and auctioning radio spectrum as ways to cut the deficit. Obama has also proposed $354 billion by 2021 in savings from Medicaid and from cuts to Medicare providers.

McConnell spoke shortly after House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, seemed to dismiss an idea of adding spending targets - backed up by automatic cuts in both agency budgets and benefit programs like Medicare - as a means to ensure budget savings. Obama himself has come out in favor of the idea - though only if the threat of automatic tax increases is part of meeting the deficit target.

"I don't want phony caps, I don't want phony targets," Boehner said. "All the gimmicks that have been used in the past have never worked. Congress has found a way to wiggle out of all of them." Obama's idea of automatic tax increases is a nonstarter with Republicans.

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House panel okays defense bill

The House Armed Services Committee on Thursday approved a broad $553 billion defense bill that would provide a 1.6 percent increase in military pay, fund an array of weapons systems and meet the Pentagon's request for an additional $118 billion to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The vote was 60-1, with Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., opposing the legislation. The bill slightly increases health care fees for working-age military retirees, costs that have remained unchanged for 11 years.

DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL: In a series of contentious votes, the House panel added provisions that strike at repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The committee, on a 33-27 vote, adopted an amendment that requires all four service chiefs to certify the change won't hurt troops' ability to fight. The repeal law only requires certification from the president, defense secretary and the Joint Chiefs chairman.

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