Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Tuesday said entitlement reforms should not be included in a short-term budget deal negotiated in a lame-duck session of Congress.
Durbin said liberals should be willing to discuss reforms to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but that this should be a part of a longer negotiation to reduce the deficit and should not be in a package to prevent tax hikes and spending cuts set to begin in January.
“We’re not going to find ourselves at some big party celebrating in February and then turn around in March and have another doomsday scenario with the debt ceiling,” Durbin said in comments at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. ”We’ve got to get this done as one big package.”
The White House and Congress are trying to negotiate a deal that would prevent taxes from rising on most households in January, when Bush-era tax rates are set to expire. Spending cuts that were a part of last year’s debt ceiling deal are also set to kick in.
Republicans and Democrats have made little progress so far in agreeing to a deal that would include tax hikes, spending cuts and reforms to entitlements.
The White House is insisting that Republicans agree to allow the Bush-era tax rates on households with income above $250,000 to expire. Republicans want all of those tax rates to be extended, but have expressed a willingness to agree to some additional tax revenue.
Durbin, an Illinois lawmaker who is considered close to President Obama, threw cold water on an entitlement reform proposal the president considered last year that would raise the Medicare eligibility age, and said the emphasis should instead be put on raising taxes and cutting defense and security programs to bring them in line with historical percentages.
“Progressives should be willing to talk about ways to ensure the long-term viability of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, but those conversations should not be part of a plan to avert the fiscal cliff,” Durbin said in prepared remarks.
A Senate Democratic aide said Durbin believes Congress should look at Medicare and Medicaid reforms as part of long-term deficit-reduction talks but that they should be kept separate from a short-term deal to avoid the cliff.
“I think we should take Social Security off the table for the current fiscal cliff and deficit reduction but be very honest about what we’re going to achieve in the near term,” he said in his live remarks to the audience at CAP.
Durbin called for the creation of a special commission to come up with a plan to extend the program’s projected solvency to 75 years and require Congress to vote on it.
He also endorsed an idea floated by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) to create such a commission every 10 years to measure whether or not Social Security still has 75 years of solvency and what it will take to maintain that standard.
Durbin called Medicare and Medicaid the “two toughest elements when it comes to entitlements” and said the prospect that, without reforms, Medicare could run out of money in 12 years was “scary.”
He said he had “trouble” with proposals to raise the Medicare eligibility age, something Obama seriously considered during negotiations with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in the summer of 2011.
“What I want to hear is the assurance [or] guarantee that people like my brother will have access to affordable healthcare insurance during any interim period of time from retirement until they actually qualify for Medicare,” he said, noting his older brother lost his employer-provided health plan after suffering a heart attack.
Durbin admonished Congress to proceed very carefully on Medicaid, noting that the program pays for more than half of the births in Illinois and that 60 percent of its cost pays for the frail and elderly, many of whom are broke and institutionalized.
He rejected the Medicaid reforms included in the House-passed budgets authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
“My question to him and people on that side is, well, which group that I just mentioned to you do you want to reduce coverage by one third and what will the consequences be?” he said.
Durbin took a more forceful stance in his prepared remarks.
“We will not abandon entitlement programs in the name of reform. But we won’t privatize Social Security and turn it over to Wall Street to run. We won’t turn Medicare into a voucher plan for the insurance companies to run. And we won’t block grant Medicaid,” he said.
Durbin, the No. 2-ranking Senate Democrat, has a strong relationship with the liberal wing of the Senate Democratic Caucus and is seen as their advocate in leadership meetings.
He has been criticized by some on the left for supporting the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan and discussing cuts to entitlement programs with Republicans in the Senate’s Gang of Six. On Tuesday, he justified his actions by arguing that liberals need a strong allied voice at the negotiating table.
Durbin’s live speech often departed from his prepared remarks, but he said he stood by the drafted comments.
This story was updated at 2:18 p.m.