By Julian Pecquet - 06/03/11 02:59 PM EDT
The attempt by Republicans to tie Medicare reforms to negotiations on raising the debt ceiling is "absolutely irresponsible," Sen. Jack ReedJack ReedOvernight Finance: McConnell offers 'clean' funding bill | Dems pan proposal | Flint aid, internet measure not included | More heat for Wells Fargo | New concerns on investor visas Senate Dems call for investigation into Wells Fargo's wage practices Week ahead: Negotiators near deal on defense bill MORE (D-R.I.) said Friday.
Reed and Sen. Tom HarkinTom HarkinGrassley challenger no stranger to defying odds Clinton ally stands between Sanders and chairmanship dream Do candidates care about our health or just how much it costs? MORE (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 McConnellMitch McConnellTrump slams Obama for ‘shameful’ 9/11 bill veto GOP chairman lobbies against overriding Obama on 9/11 bill Black Caucus demands Flint funding from GOP MORE (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."
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 MurkowskiLisa MurkowskiOvernight Energy: Obama integrates climate change into national security planning GOP pressures Kerry on Russia's use of Iranian airbase Overnight Energy: Lawmakers kick off energy bill talks MORE (Alaska), Rand PaulRand PaulSaudi skeptics gain strength in Congress Senators challenge status quo on Saudi arms sales Five tips from Trump's fallen rivals on how to debate him MORE (Ky.) and Susan CollinsSusan CollinsSwing-state Republicans play up efforts for gun control laws Reid knocks GOP on gun 'terror loophole' after attacks GOP pressures Kerry on Russia's use of Iranian airbase MORE 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 MenendezRobert MenendezTaiwan and ICAO: this is the time Rubio warns of terror attack from Cuba flights Politicians shouldn’t be above the law, Trump and Clinton included MORE (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."