Dem leaders: Cuts to Medicare benefits off the table in deficit negotiations

Democratic party leaders on Wednesday argued that they had already put Medicare cuts on the table in deficit talks, but they ruled out any reduction to benefits.

"Is Medicare – has it been on the table? Absolutely it has been on the table," Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), the vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Wednesday following a caucus meeting in the Capitol with senior White House economic adviser Gene Sperling.

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"We're willing to talk and to put everything on the table for discussion — at least this Democrat is," Becerra said. "But the moment you want to privatize Social Security, or voucherize Medicare, or block-grant Medicaid — that's where you lose us. Because we want to strengthen those programs, not let them die on the vine."

Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), who heads the House Democratic Caucus, echoed that message, claiming there's more than $700 billion in savings to be had by ironing out inefficiencies in the healthcare system that wouldn't affect direct benefits. He suggested fixing those problems shouldn't be a partisan issue.

"I do not believe that Republicans want to see their beneficiaries, their recipients in their communities, lose their benefits," Larson said. "So I think there is a common ground for us to work under."

The remarks come as the bipartisan fiscal-cliff talks are beginning in earnest and both sides say they're eager to get a deal. 

Still, while leaders of both parties have publicly adopted a more conciliatory tone since the Nov. 6 elections, neither side has been willing to cede any ground on their core policy positions. Democrats are still insisting there be no cuts to entitlement benefits — something GOP leaders are urging. And Republicans are demanding there be no increase in marginal tax rates while Obama and the Democrats are insisting on raising rates for the wealthy.

Republicans say they are willing to accept more tax revenue, but only from eliminating loopholes and deductions in the tax code.

Larson on Wednesday suggested the GOP's offer is insincere.

"Clearly, as Gene Sperling was saying today, the president's willing to look at what they're going to put forward in terms of revenues," Larson said. "But that hasn't been forthcoming, shall we say.

"But where the president's been very clear is in terms of the impact on beneficiaries," he added.

Becerra noted that the looming automatic budget cuts include Medicare spending but not Medicare benefit payments.

"We've been smart, at least on the Democratic side, in how we go about it," Becerra said. "We don't go after benefits for those who've earned them. We try to make sure that we get rid of the waste and the overspending by those who are profiting from Medicare. And you can do that."

The Democratic leaders also pushed back against proposals to make Social Security a part of the fiscal-cliff talks.

Social Security, Larson said, "is not responsible for the deficit and clearly shouldn't be on the table for discussion." 

Becerra had a different take. He said everything should be on the table initially, but those programs that don't contribute to the deficit should be taken off the table quickly. Social Security, he said, is one such program.

"Everything should be on the table, period," Becerra said. "And if we're smart and sensible, we'll leave on the table to help us reduce our deficit the things that drove us into these deficits.

"Why [you would] cut the benefits of seniors on Social Security to pay for the misspending and the bad ideas of previous Congresses, I don't understand," he said.

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