Sen. Durbin: White House has taken Medicare eligibility age hike off the table

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he has been told that raising the Medicare eligibility age is “off the table” in deficit talks, limiting the scope of entitlement reform.

“I was told that it is not on the table from the White House,” Durbin said, “raising the Medicare eligibility age.”

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Durbin, the Senate’s second-ranking Democratic leader, made his comments to reporters after a leadership press conference on the "fiscal cliff" talks.

A group of liberal Democrats has said in recent days that raising the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67, as President Obama mulled during deficit-reduction talks with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in the summer of 2011, would cause them to vote against any year-end deal.

Obama did not rule out the possibility of raising the eligibility age in an interview this week with ABC’s Barbara Walters.

“When you look at the evidence, it’s not clear that it actually saves a lot of money,” he said.

“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.”

Durbin said it there is not enough time to make meaningful reforms to Medicare and Medicaid — let alone Social Security — over the 18 days remaining in December.

“To try to make entitlement reforms now, in five days? I get nervous,” he said. “These are programs that are going to be around for decades and they’ve been around for decades.

“Before we start moving on any substantive policy changes, let’s think it through and look at it in a larger context,” Durbin added.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters Tuesday it would be very difficult to get any sort of fiscal-cliff deal finished by Christmas.

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On Thursday, he blamed Boehner for not offering any specific plans to raise tax revenues and reform federal safety-net programs. He pressed Boehner to immediately pass Senate legislation extending the Bush-era tax rates for family incomes below $250,000 a year.

“We have nothing to do until they do something,” Reid said. “We’re waiting for them to do something to help the middle class. The American people shouldn’t have to have their tax cuts held hostage to these never-ending press conferences [Boehner’s] holding.”

Reid said Boehner has made little effort to reach out to Senate Democrats to discuss a path forward on the expiring income tax rates or automatic cuts to domestic and defense spending.

“My office is open anytime to the Speaker. Our staffs have had some contact and he hasn’t seen fit to call upon me for any advice or counsel, he has been doing it all directly with the president,” Reid said.

Boehner would make little progress if he pushed Reid to accept an increase in the Medicare eligibility age. Many members of the Democratic Caucus are firmly opposed to the idea.

“That’s non-starter for me,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told The Hill Wednesday. “I’ll tell you why. It’s very costly to Medicare because when you take the healthiest people out of Medicare, the costs on everybody else goes up.

“There will be increases in their premiums, there will be 300,000 fewer people with healthcare,” she added.