By Jason Millman - 03/10/11 01:44 AM EST
The Obama administration escalated a fight with Republicans over spending on Wednesday, warning that millions of seniors could see their Medicare payments blocked under the House GOP plan.
Seniors could also see Social Security payments delayed if the measure backed by the GOP cutting another $57 billion in spending this year is enacted, the administration said.
Polls show both parties would get the blame if the spending fight caused a shutdown, with nearly equal numbers of respondents in several surveys assigning blame to both the White House and congressional Republicans.
The new arguments came as the Senate failed to move forward on either the House GOP spending plan or the White House’s option, forcing both sides back to the bargaining table. Both measures failed to win even 50 votes, though Democrats saw more of their members defect than did Republicans, which could give an advantage to the GOP.
The administration’s warning on Medicare was delivered by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in a letter to Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).
Sebelius said GOP efforts to starve the healthcare reform law of implementation funds would prevent Medicare from paying popular private Medicare Advantage insurance plans and would force the agency to rewrite reimbursement rates, which could take months. The House GOP bill includes language blocking funds from implementing the healthcare law, which Republicans want to repeal.
“In a system where millions of claims are paid each week, millions of claims would accumulate, which [the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)] and its contractors would be prohibited from paying at the Affordable Care Act rates,” Sebelius said in the letter.
Republicans blasted Sebelius, accusing the administration of using scare tactics against senior citizens to try to score political points.
“As secretary of HHS, we know you understand that this appropriations bill does not change the fact that Medicare is a mandatory program, and therefore, seniors are still entitled to their full benefits under the law,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) wrote to Sebelius on Wednesday.
“We are disappointed you chose to send an inaccurate letter that is certain to create unwarranted confusion and fear amongst millions of seniors.”
While Sebelius made the Medicare argument, Social Security Administration (SSA) Commissioner Michael Astrue testified that the House GOP’s spending bill would prevent his agency from eliminating a backlog in disability payments. As a result, Astrue said, there could be delays in the distribution of basic retirement claims.
“Under the House plan, the Social Security Administration would have to cut its staff by 3,500 by the end of the year and may ultimately have to resort to furloughs,” Astrue told the Senate Appropriations Committee. “As a result, millions of Americans filing disability claims this year would wait longer for benefits.”
Negotiations on a spending bill to fund the government through September have hit a wall in the six days since Obama dispatched Vice President Biden to meet with congressional leaders at the Capitol.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Biden made calls to some lawmakers from Moscow, and Obama met with a group of Senate Democrats in the White House.
Republicans preparing a new stopgap measure to cut more government funds stepped up their arguments that Obama’s hands-off approach to the spending fight is a problem.
“Where is the president?” Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) asked in a press conference Wednesday morning, repeating the refrain five times in the 10-minute briefing.
Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) mocked the White House for naming Biden to lead negotiations days before he departed Washington for a five-day trip to Finland, Moldova and Russia.
“The vice president’s not even in the country,” McCarthy said. He noted that the White House press secretary refused to identify who was negotiating for the administration in Biden’s absence, and he gleefully recited examples of Democratic division on the proposed spending cuts.
House Republicans gave no details about the contents of the short-term funding bill they were preparing during a caucus meeting on Wednesday. That bill is expected to keep the government operating for another two to four weeks, and will likely include billions more in cuts.
A Senate aide close to the House GOP leadership said the measure would likely be similar to the two-week continuing resolution that cut $4 billion in spending, which passed earlier this month.
House Republican leaders may take some of the $6.2 billion in cuts Senate Democrats included in the alternative package they put on the floor this week. The Senate GOP aide said it would be difficult for Democrats to vote against a short-term continuing resolution that includes the cuts they’ve proposed.
Democratic leaders will insist on passing a long-term continuing resolution so they can concentrate on other legislative priorities, such as energy legislation and their jobs agenda.
Democrats also worry that passing a short-term government funding measure will force them to accept an additional round of cuts when it expires.
A leadership source said GOP leaders were waiting for Wednesday’s Senate votes before moving forward with their next steps.
Russell Berman, Erik Wasson, Alexander Bolton and Molly K. Hooper contributed.