Senate Dems demand that GOP drop Medicare overhaul from debt-ceiling talks

The attempt by Republicans to tie Medicare reforms to negotiations on raising the debt ceiling is "absolutely irresponsible," Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said Friday.

Reed and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, took their strongest stance yet on the issue during a conference call with reporters. 

Vice President Biden has been holding bipartisan talks to try and strike a deal on raising the debt ceiling. Taking Medicare off the table in those talks, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last week, is "silly talk" and "nonsense." 

Reed said the high-stakes game of brinksmanship over the debt ceiling is not the right venue to reform a complicated program that's vital to millions of Americans.

"Our message," Harkin said, "is simply: Take Medicare off the table. Let's solve the default crisis. And let's talk about fixing the system so that our middle class has a little bit better shape."

"Medicare is such a complicated, complex topic," Reed said. "To do it right, this is not the proper arena for that kind of debate."

The two Democrats used the call to pummel the House Republican proposal that would replace Medicare with subsidies for private insurance starting in 2022, as proposed by Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). But they also pushed back against accusations that Democrats don't have any ideas to tackle Medicare's increasing insolvency. 

Harkin recommended drug price negotiations and covering low-income Medicare beneficiaries under Medicaid. He also said the healthcare reform law's investments in preventive care and changes to the healthcare system should be given a chance to work.

"Those four things alone, I believe, will be more than adequate to help save Medicare," Harkin said.

Budgetary scorekeepers have been skeptical, however.

Harkin added that he would prefer a clean debt-ceiling bill. But he would not rule out voting for certain changes to Medicare, depending on what the bipartisan negotiators come up with.

Senate Democrats feel they've already scored a political victory on Medicare by forcing their Republican colleagues to vote on the House budget. Five Republicans — Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Rand Paul (Ky.) and Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine — defected, with Paul saying he did so because the House budget doesn't cut enough.

But McConnell made clear last week that he plans to move full speed ahead with Medicare cuts even though they're likely to be unpopular. He declined to say whether he supported the House plan or some other alternative, however.

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

The ideological chasm on health entitlements goes beyond Medicare. On Wednesday, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) told reporters that Republicans' plan to turn Medicaid into a block grant and slash the program by more than $700 billion is just as unpalatable to Senate Democrats.

"While Medicare has been the focus … Medicaid, certainly in the context of block granting, is also not acceptable," he said.

Regardless of what happens in the debt-ceiling talks, Republicans have made clear that they'll continue to bang the drum for Medicare reform.

The Ways and Means Committee announced Friday that its health panel will hold a hearing on Medicare's financial status on June 22, the first in a series of hearing on the program's future. The hearing comes after the Medicare Trustees announced last month that the trust fund that pays Medicare hospital claims will start paying out more than it takes in starting in 2024, five years sooner than last year's projection.

"The findings of the Medicare trustees are alarming," Health subcommittee Chairman Wally Herger (R-Calif.) said in a statement announcing the hearing. "Medicare's Hospital Insurance trust fund is expected to go bankrupt five years sooner than last year and was forced to redeem $32.3 billion in bonds last year so that it could pay medical claims. It is critical that the American people understand just how dire Medicare's finances are."