Republicans may be suffering politically for voting to phase out Medicare. But they moved the needle on the policy debate way to the right, and, as such, cutting Medicare now is basically a fait accompli.
The latest plan comes from Sens. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT). This is an interesting political coalition for a few reasons. Recall that Coburn left the Gang-of-Six Senate debt talks for proposing dramatic cuts to Medicare, and has now found comfort in the arms of liberals’ darkest bete noire.
What they propose doesn’t seek to replace Medicare with a private insurance scheme as does the GOP budget. Nonetheless it has already been rejected by the top Democrats on Capitol Hill — House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).
In an official statement Pelosi said, “It is unfair to ask seniors to get less in benefits and wait longer to get onto Medicare - all while Republicans back tax breaks for Big Oil and corporations that ship American jobs overseas. Just like the Republican plan to end Medicare, this proposal is unacceptable, especially for struggling middle-class Americans.”
At a Capitol press conference Tuesday, Reid called it a “bad idea.” “I think we should not be cutting benefits now,” he added.
The plan would cut Medicare spending in numerous ways, the most controversial of which is by increasing the retirement age to 67 — contingent on the idea that the new health care law isn’t repealed.
It would set a fixed annual deductible of $550, but cap out of pocket for beneficiaries at $7,500. It would accelerate Affordable Care Act provisions changing the way Medicare reimburses home health care providers, and further means-test the program for wealthy Americans — this includes requiring high-income seniors to pay the full cost of their prescription drug benefit.
Republicans cite Lieberman’s support to lure Democrats into supporting major cuts to Medicare.
“That shows that two senators on opposite sides of the aisle — underscore the necessity of doing something serious about entitlements,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). “We can put our heads in the sand…or we can come together as Senator Coburn and Senator Lieberman have with their particular proposal and try to do something about it.”
But Lieberman’s retiring in 2012. And Coburn’s broad request to slash billions from Medicare in 10 years was the final straw in the bipartisan Gang of Six talks. This proposal, while more concrete, would supposedly cut $600 billion from the program over the next decade — far more than Democrats were prepared to except in behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Still Coburn and Leiberman’s cuts can be taken piecemeal. And while many of their ideas constitute benefit cuts — the sort of cuts Democratic leaders claim to reject — some of them could end up injected in the debate over raising the debt limit.
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.