Opinion: No gain without fiscal pain

Let’s Be Real, Part 1: Democrats do not want to reform Medicare, the costly social welfare program that is key to any “Grand Bargain” on the budget between President Obama and House Republicans. 

The president saw his party’s reluctance to change Medicare firsthand last week during his trips to Capitol Hill to meet with Senate Democrats. If he didn’t get the message, House Democrats wrote a letter of “vigorous opposition” to cutting Medicare benefits.

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Let’s Be Real, Part 2: The Republicans want to turn Medicare into a voucher plan that will end guaranteed coverage of medical bills for the elderly.

The House Republican plan for Medicare reform released last week by Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), chair of the budget committee, sticks with an unrealistic voucher plan that has the politically incendiary potential to leave some seniors with no healthcare services.

And there are no big savings under the Ryan plan. For the next ten years, the Ryan plan basically leaves Medicare spending in place. Why is it so hard for the nation’s elected federal officials to act maturely on the fiscal challenge posed by Medicare, the healthcare program for the elderly and disabled? 

Well, how are elected representatives supposed to act maturely when the American people tell pollsters they do not want any changes to Medicare even if it is 12 percent of the federal budget and steadily increasing with the rapid aging of baby boomers?

Last week’s Washington Post-ABC poll found 60 percent of the country does not want to hike the age of eligibility for Medicare just two years, from 65 to 67. This a fairly small change given that life expectancy has gone up 18 years for women and 13 years for men since Medicare was created in 1965.

A February Pew Poll found Republicans — the biggest supporters of reducing government spending --— favor cuts in just two of 19 slices of the budget: foreign aid and unemployment assistance.

When it comes to Medicare, only 21 percent of Republicans want cuts while 24 percent want Medicare spending increased and 53 percent favor maintaining the current rate of spending. Among Democrats, 52 percent favor higher Medicare spending.

Yet the public tells politicians to cut federal spending. 

There is simply no way to reduce the budget in any meaningful way without doing something about the rising cost of Medicare. 

Last week, during his trips to Congress in search of a jump-start for budget talks, Obama reiterated to both Republicans and Democrats that he is willing to take the political risk of proposing a means test for Medicare, limiting the program  for high-income seniors. 

In addition, the president’s proposal to make Medicare more cost efficient combines requiring drug manufacturers and hospitals to lower their costs in treating elderly patients. Under this plan, which the president offered to Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) as part of the “fiscal cliff” talks in December, $400 billion will be saved from Medicare over the next 10 years of federal spending.

Those savings are even larger than the $130 million in savings from limiting inflation’s impact on Social Security through the use of a so-called “chained CPI,” restraining the growth of Social Security payments by limiting increases as the Consumer Price Index rises over the next decade.

The only ideas the GOP has for limiting spending on Medicare amount to wild, unrealistic demands for turning the program into a voucher while also repealing the Affordable Healthcare Act (a.k.a. ObamaCare).

Ending ObamaCare will hurt seniors on two fronts. Under the president’s plan seniors keep their guaranteed Medicare benefits. And they also gain protections on paying for prescription drugs by closing a gap in the current subsidy, the so-called “donut hole.”

As a Washington Post editorial noted last week, even if Medicare became a voucher plan, as Ryan proposes, it “wouldn’t start for a decade, which makes it all the more disappointing that his budget only calls for a modest $129 billion to trim to Medicare in the meantime. That is less than the Obama administration has advocated.”

In other words, Ryan’s plan is a political attack intended to indulge Republican antagonism to the president and his healthcare plan. It is not a serious proposal about reducing the nation’s debt.

Meanwhile, the president is facing blowback from Democrats who just want to leave Medicare as it is. The president’s poll numbers have slipped in recent weeks as more Americans, especially the independents aligned with neither major party, have sided with Republicans who scold the president for failing to be a leader and find a way to make a budget deal and avoid the sequester.

But when it comes to serious cuts to major programs like Medicaid the American people are not calling for leadership but magic. They want cuts with no pain.

Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.