Sen. King: Entitlement changes likely

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) on Thursday said it's likely that entitlement changes could be traded off for changing the sequester in a new budget deal.

King is a member of the Budget conference committee between the House and Senate. The committee was set up by the measure approved Wednesday to raise the debt ceiling and end the government shutdown. 

Lawmakers have floated the idea that Republicans could trade changes to the sequester of automatic spending cuts for changes to entitlements. King suggested that was a strong possibility, though he said it would not cut entitlement benefits. 

“In order to ameliorate the sequester, there are likely to be some entitlement changes — not cuts in benefits, but things like, for example, right now on Medicare, the tax stops at $100,000 a year,” King said on CNN’s “New Day” Thursday. 

“In other words, you pay zero after that as incomes go up. The disparity on that has crept up over the years. … There may be some means testing for wealthier Medicare recipients,” he said.

President Obama has proposed greater means testing for Medicare benefits as part of his budget, but he made the proposal contingent on higher taxes. Medicare taxes are paid on all income, despite King's comments about it stopping at $100,000. 

Democrats have proposed fixing Social Security's long-term funding shortfall by raising the cap on income subject to the payroll tax. Currently, income above $113,000 per year is not taxed. Technically, Social Security's cash shortfall is not part of the budget deficit since it is funded by a separate trust fund.

King, who caucuses with Democrats, voted for the Senate deal to reopen the government and to raise the debt ceiling Wednesday night. 

The difficulty for the budget conference is that Democrats and the White House are expected to demand new taxes in exchange for any entitlement reforms.

“It’s not like it’s going to be easy," King said of trying to reconcile the different House and Senate budgets. “But there are elements that I think could really make a difference.”

Senate and House lawmakers appointed to conferences Wednesday have about 2 months to negotiate on a longer-term deal. They could do it in a day “if people were willing to put their ideological blinders aside,” King added. 

Asked if there’s any chance they'll succeed, he said, “Yes, I think there is.  I think everyone was chastened by this experience.  A lot of the talk this morning is about who won and who lost.  The American people lost.  I'm tired of winning and losing around here.”

If, however, King and the other conferees don’t reach a deal, they might wind up in the same situation in January and February. The government is only funded now until Jan. 15. 

“Nobody wants to go through this again. It’s ridiculous,” King said. “We did it with 2 hours to spare. None of us did our book reports before Sunday night, but there’s no excuse for it.”

— Erik Wasson contributed to this story. 

— This story was updated at 10:59 a.m.