McConnell: Saying Medicare is off the table is 'silly talk' and 'nonsense'

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Friday that Medicare reform must be part of an agreement to raise the debt ceiling, despite indications that changing the entitlement will be politically unpopular.

Democrats made Medicare reforms pushed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) a central issue in a special election in upstate New York they won last week, despite it being a heavily Republican district.

But McConnell dismissed suggestions that the Democrats’ success in that election would factor into negotiations to raise the $14.3 trillion debt limit. He described suggestions that Medicare would not be part of a solution to reducing annual deficits as “silly talk” and “nonsense.”

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“Medicare will be part of any agreement to begin to reduce our long-term debt. I’m not going to put a number on the overall package but we all know what the driver of the debt is,” McConnell said.

At a press conference earlier this month, McConnell said short-term spending cuts and cuts to entitlement programs would need to be part of the debt-limit agreement.

He reaffirmed that Medicare would have to undergo substantial spending cuts, despite indications that Democrats could exploit the GOP position to score political points.

McConnell said current beneficiaries would not be affected by the changes, but declined to say what specific reforms he supports. McConnell also declined to say whether he supported Ryan’s Medicare proposal, despite pointed questioning.

“You can’t do anything about the single biggest problem we have without impacting Medicare,” McConnell said. “The good news for current Medicare beneficiaries is we’re not talking about them, we’re talking about down the road.”

McConnell dismissed theories that the GOP setback in the New York special election signals the party would suffer next year for pushing Medicare reforms.

“I think drawing a whole lot of conclusions out of a three-way race out of New York a year and a half before the election is kind of foolish,” he said. “A lot will happen between now and the fall of ’12.”

McConnell would not put a number to the total amount of spending cuts he wants to see as part of a debt-ceiling deal, reiterating his support for a discretionary spending cap for 2012 and 2013.

He repeated his position that tax increases would not be part of a deal.

“I am confident that taxes are not going to be a part of this,” he said.

McConnell acknowledged that Social Security reform will not be a part of the debt-limit talks, despite GOP support for raising the retirement age.

“The president doesn’t seem to want to do Social Security even though it ran a $50 billion deficit this year, so I’m assuming we won’t do that,” he said.

Social Security has a $2.6 trillion surplus, but the federal government has raised the trust fund to pay for other programs. The Congressional Budget Office reported last year that Social Security had begun to pay out more in benefits than it collected in revenue, a point it was not expected to hit until 2016.