Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Friday dismissed as “silly talk” the Democratic argument that Medicare reform is not going to be part of any long-term deficit-reduction deal, projecting that major changes to the popular entitlement program would come before the 2012 presidential election.
“I think we will have done something significant to alter the trajectory long term on Medicare well before the election,” McConnell told reporters at a Capitol news conference ahead of Memorial Day weekend.
McConnell’s remarks came three days after Republicans lost a special election in New York that hinged on Medicare, and one day after congressional leaders met with Vice President Biden in their fourth huddle aimed at producing a deficit-reduction plan ahead of an Aug. 2 deadline for raising the country’s $14.3 trillion borrowing limit.
Democrats, who have maintained that Medicare is not on the table in the deficit-reduction talks, have seized on Tuesday’s special election to doubled down on their criticism of the House Republican 2012 budget plan, which includes a provision that would turn the health care program for seniors and the disabled into a voucher program. McConnell’s statement Friday was the clearest indication yet that Republicans are standing by their budget blueprint – including their proposed changes to Medicare -- even as polls show that voters are opposed to overhauling the entitlement program.
Earlier this week, after a 2 ½-hour meeting with the six-member working group, Biden told reporters that the group was on track to reach an agreement on at least $1 trillion in spending cuts in exchange for a debt-limit increase.
Asked Friday about the progress the group has been making, McConnell declined to name a target dollar figure he had in mind but stood by his call for caps on discretionary spending and entitlement reform to be a part of any eventual deal.
“Medicare will be a part of any agreement to begin to reduce our long-term debt,” McConnell said. “So, I’m not going to put a number on the overall package. But, look, we all know what the driver of the debt is. ... I’m just saying, to get my vote, we have to do significant entitlement reform.”
McConnell also dismissed Biden’s assertion Tuesday night that tax increases must be on the table in the deficit-reduction talks.
“The vice president can speak for himself; I’m talking about what it would take to get my vote,” McConnell said, repeating the Republican mantra that Washington has a spending problem, not a revenue problem.
After Thursday’s meeting of the working group, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), McConnell’s delegate to the talks, confirmed to reporters that Biden told members of the group that revenue must be on the table. But Kyl added that Biden suggested to the working group political calculations were also at play.
“He said that,” Kyl said when asked of Biden’s comments on revenue. “And he explained why he said it. You know, we’re not doing a lot of talking, for obvious reasons. But he said, ‘You know, I did want to let people know that we’re making progress here.’ And he said, ‘I thought saying that we thought at least we could get to a trillion – obviously, more than that – would be a good way to assure people that we were making progress.’ Okay, fine. ‘And also,’ he says, ‘we have to talk revenues.’ He says, ‘You all understand why I have to say that.’ I said, ‘I understand why you need to say that.’”
The group is working out its schedule for the next several weeks, Kyl said, and members may meet again next week.