Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) says substantial Medicare cuts must be part of a spending and deficit cut package to get his support to raise the debt limit.
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.
That’s not a filibuster threat, but it is a clear indication of what the GOP is demanding in private deliberations. McConnell repeatedly cited Bill Clinton and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who this week acknowledged — as have many Democrats — that resolving the long-term deficit problem will require addressing Medicare. Hoyer in particular said that Medicare will be on the table in current debt negotiations, and with revenues off the table — that means they’re talking politically dangerous cuts. And for Republicans, that’s the point.
Here’s how McConnell described it, in response to a different question about the political cost to Republicans of having voted already to privatize Medicare.
“I think the 2012 election will take care of itself — it’s about a year and a half from now,” he said. “I would think that we will hopefully have done something significant in this area by then, and the American people can decide whether they want to punish both sides for having done that, because it will take both sides to do it. It will come out of the conversations that are going on now led by the Vice President.”
Of course, not all Medicare cuts are created equal, and Medicare spending can be reduced without necessarily cutting seniors’ benefits. But the idea here is clear: if the country’s to avoid defaulting on its debt, there has to be a bipartisan vote to cut Medicare. And the hope for McConnell and the GOP is that this will obscure the test vote they took on phasing the program out entirely.
The question now is whether Democrats will be on board with this, or whether they’ll try to call the GOP’s bluff.
Late update: In response to this piece, Jon Summers, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) issued the following statement. “Republicans are holding the United States’ credit hostage to ram through their plan to end Medicare. They are now saying they won’t accept any plan to reduce the deficit unless it also cuts Medicare. Voters have resoundingly rejected this ideological agenda. Republicans should drop it and move on.”
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.