Dems line up behind Pelosi against changing Medicare eligibility age

House Democrats are lining up behind Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) against raising Medicare’s eligibility age as part of a year-end tax-and-spending package.

Pelosi rejected raising Medicare’s eligibility age in an op-ed published Tuesday in USA Today, then doubled down on that position Wednesday.

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“We want what happens to be fair,” she said in an interview on CBS’s “This Morning” program. “And one of the things that we object to is raising the Medicare age.”

A number of Democrats say this is neither a case of posturing by Pelosi nor a good-cop, bad-cop routine with President Obama to boost the White House’s negotiating position. Instead, they see Pelosi’s remarks as the reiteration of a core party principle that can’t be compromised.

“I haven’t heard any Democrat in our caucus say they’re open to raising the eligibility age,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said Wednesday.

The Democrats’ opposition could play a significant role in the fate of a fiscal-cliff package, as House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is expected to lose dozens of his troops if the bill includes the tax-rate increases Obama is insisting upon. Without at least 218 Republicans, Pelosi and the minority would have to step in to make up the difference.

It’s a dynamic that hasn’t been lost on the Democrats, and they say they intend to use their leverage to prevent cuts to entitlement benefits.

“If Democrats are asked to deliver votes — which is almost certain, right? … we have to understand exactly what that plan is as it impacts Medicare and Social Security,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said Wednesday.

Democrats insist they’re open to finding some savings from Medicare, but warn they won’t support a fiscal package that includes cuts to entitlement benefits — including a hike in Medicare’s age.

“Within the totality of the system … yes, there can continue to be savings and efficiencies and cuts that can be made,” Rep. John Larson (Conn.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Wednesday after a caucus meeting in the Capitol. “Where Democrats are rock solid is we don’t think we should be impacting beneficiaries.”

Means-testing on Medicare is one possible reform that could draw Democratic support. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), the leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, endorsed the possibility last week. 

“I think most rational people, including Democrats, agree we have to make some cuts and deal with Medicare,” Cleaver said Dec. 7 on MSNBC. “Let’s have some means-testing, because I don’t think that cutting benefits at this time is going to go over well. We can do means-testing and reduce the payments [to the wealthy].”

Raising Medicare’s eligibility age has repeatedly come up in the deficit fights that have defined the 112th Congress, and Obama supported such a change last year in private talks with Boehner on raising the debt ceiling. Democrats howled, however, that the White House was giving away the store in return for too little in new revenues, and the talks quickly broke down when the president demanded higher taxes.

Obama this week didn’t rule out supporting the change to Medicare again, though he downplayed it by saying it won’t do much to lower deficits.

“When you look at the evidence, it’s not clear that it actually saves a lot of money,” he told ABC News. “But what I’ve said is let’s look at every avenue, because what is true is we need to strengthen Social Security, we need to strengthen Medicare for future generations. The current path is not sustainable, because we’ve got an aging population and healthcare costs are shooting up so quickly.”

In January, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimated that increasing the eligibility age from 65 to 67 — in two-month increments starting in 2014 — would save Medicare $148 billion over the next decade. But because many seniors would shift to other federal programs — like Medicaid or federally subsidized insurance exchanges created by the Democrats’ healthcare law — the net deficit savings over the same span would be $113 billion.

Larson said there’s enough waste in the nation’s healthcare delivery system that Congress can find plenty of federal savings tackling that. He argued that Obama’s reelection was a clear signal that voters favor the president’s approach to healthcare and entitlement reform.

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Changes to Medicare’s eligibility age would also complicate passage in the Senate. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) this week called the idea “a nonstarter”; Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) told The Washington Post that it would be “absolutely unacceptable”; and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said it “would be a terrible and destructive thing to do and extremely disheartening for so many people who worked so hard for the president.” 

“It would have lasting consequences into his presidency,” Whitehouse warned Obama. 

Fueling the Democrats’ opposition, the CBO has estimated that the change would leave roughly 270,000 seniors uninsured in 2021, while increasing premium and out-of-pocket costs for millions of other would-be Medicare beneficiaries.

Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said Democrats have complete confidence that Obama won’t allow Medicare benefit cuts to become a part of the final package. He said Obama’s public openness to entitlement cuts is a “smart” strategy from a president who “doesn’t want to be negotiating in the paper.”

“He’s got a lot of support in the caucus. People are confident that he’s got wind at his back from the election and he’s holding firm,” Welch said Wednesday. 

“It’s premature for those of us who are on the outside and have no clue as to what is going on moment to moment to be getting panicky or be taking a hostile position to something that may not even be real,” he added. “These are closed-door discussions largely between the president and the Speaker, and the Speaker has got one hell of a hard job.”

Alexander Bolton contributed.