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Harkin, Reed Want to Take Medicare Off the Table in Debt Limit Negotiations

In addition to promising not to cave on tax cuts for the rich, President Obama in his meeting with House Democrats also promised not to cave on Medicare, amid urging from the caucus. Kathy Hochul (D-NY), the newest member of Congress, stressed the importance of Medicare to her Congressional victory last week. And Nancy Pelosi really led the charge on this.

As a Democratic source briefed on Thursday’s meeting relayed, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was adamant that the party not cut Medicare benefits. A recent upset victory in New York’s 26th district has seemingly provided the party with the type of template to win the tax-and-spend debate.

Democrats continued this focus coming out of the meeting and into today. You had Steny Hoyer saying that Medicare must be “strengthened and preserved” in any deal. And Senate Democrats joined this today. On a conference call, Sens. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Jack Reed (D-RI) said that House Speaker John Boehner needed to drop the plan to end Medicare from any debt limit negotiations to speed the process along. “The clock is ticking toward America’s first default on our bonds since the Revolutionary War,” Harkin said. “Our message is simply, take Medicare off the table, and let’s solve the debt crisis.”

Reed added that “using the debt ceiling as an ideological lever to erase Medicare is just irresponsible.”

Asked whether Democrats would accept any changes to Medicare, Harkin, the chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, rattled off four options. He said we could let Medicare negotiate prices with the drug companies, as the VA does, to save $100 billion. He said that dual eligibles, able to use Medicare or Medicaid, could be moved into Medicaid, which is cheaper to manage, to save another $100 billion. He said that the Affordable Care Act options to paying “for outcomes rather than procedures” will save lots of money. And he said that increases to preventive care in Medicare will help prevent some chronic illnesses and diseases, which makes up close to 70% of all Medicare spending. “Those options will be more than adequate” to retain some level of solvency for the program, Harkin said.

It does look like Democrats are pretty buttoned up in terms of protecting Medicare, though obviously things could slip in the negotiations. But they know they have a winning message that they would be foolish to dash with a “grand bargain” deal. “The issue here is about the debt ceiling, not Medicare,” Reed said. “The risk there is so serious that we should focus on that… to give in to ideological demands is not appropriate nor something the American people would accept.”

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David Dayen

David Dayen

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