Before the last Senate recess, Republican leader Mitch McConnell (KY) made an epic demand: No raising the debt limit, unless Congress also agrees on a bipartisan basis to unspecified cuts to Medicare.
The strategy was clear. Republicans in both the House and the Senate are suffering politically back home after having voted for the GOP budget, which would phase out traditional Medicare and replace it with a private insurance system. One way to trigger voter amnesia on that vote, Republicans reason, is to replace it with another vote — a bipartisan vote, with President Obama’s support — to “cut” Medicare.
That would become law, McConnell noted, and thus become the true — and more warranted — focus of voter reaction.
Democrats are biting — but carefully. At a Capitol press conference, Democratic Senate leaders drew a clear line: Medicare cuts can be on the table, but not Medicare benefit cuts.
“Three weeks ago Leader McConnell proclaimed he would not support a debt ceiling agreement unless it included cuts to Medicare, but he refused to specify what types of cuts he had in mind beyond the House-passed plan that would end the very program as we know it,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY). “So Senator McConnell is saying if he can’t get the full Ryan plan, he at least wants a plan that makes major cuts to seniors’ benefits. Basically he’s saying if he can not dismantle Medicare all at once, he wants to do it in pieces.”
Schumer, joined by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (NV) and DSCC chair Patty Murray (WA) said Democrats could support more Medicare savings along the lines of those in President Obama’s health care law — cuts which Republicans attacked to great political advantage during the 2010 midterm campaign. But no benefit cuts.
“If Senator McConnell has other ideas for Medicare in mind, he should say what they are,” Schumer said. “Let’s hear them!”
Now, neither Schumer nor McConnell are negotiating the debt limit deal for their party. But both have clout with their surrogates. House Majority Eric Cantor (R-VA), on the other hand, is negotiating that deal. And he suggested strongly on Monday that benefit cuts won’t be at the top of their list.
“As you know, the health care entitlement area is extremely complex in terms of payment systems, reimbursement systems, delivery incentives, disincentives, and the rest,” he told reporters at his weekly Capitol briefing. “There is plenty of room for savings and accomplishment of efficiency in these programs. So anyone saying that they can’t see anywhere that you can make these government programs more efficient, I just disagree with. And I see the numbers in these discussions. There’s room for us to agree on trillions of dollars of savings.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.