December 12, 2012

Senator Jeff Merkley (Photo by Brendan Smialowski)

At a recent private caucus meeting among Senate Democrats, someone brought up the persistent media rumors that President Obama might accept raising the Medicare eligibility age as part of a fiscal cliff deal. There was an outpouring of outrage from the Senate’s liberal members, who bluntly told the room that this should be a nonstarter among Dems.

So recounts Senator Jeff Merkley in an interview with me — underscoring again just how deep the opposition will run among Democrats if a hike in the Medicare age is incorporated into a deal.

“The overwhelming sense was that this would be absolutely unacceptable,” Merkley told me. Of the President, Merkley added: “I can’t imagine he is seriously considering it.”

In fact, it is not clear to what degree Obama is considering it. In an interview with ABC News he declined to rule it out, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. However, Merkley said it’s a good idea for liberals to spell out now their feelings on the issue. Speaking of the ABC interview, he said: “If this is a trial balloon, it’s a lead balloon.”

In the drone of numbers that often accompanies discussion of the fiscal cliff talks, it’s easy to forget that the decisions made in them could directly impact the lives of hundreds of thousand of people — in some cases profoundly. Raising the Medicare age is one area where this is particularly true — and Merkley spelled out the human dimensions of such a decision in a particularly vivid way.

“I do a lot of town halls,” Merkley said. “I can’t tell you how many times someone will come up to me and say, ‘Here’s the thing. I’m 61, and I have these major health problems. I don’t have insurance. I’m praying I make it to 65.’ The idea that we’re going to take all these folks with diseases setting in as they get older, and move them two years later? Absolutely unacceptable.”

“We should be lowering the age, not raising it,” Merkley said. Speaking of the president, Merkley added: “I hope he hears long and loud from us who are connected to the real lives of working people.”

Again, I would urge caution before concluding with any certainty that this is definitely on the table. We don’t know what is being discussed. But if it is, it’s becoming more and more obvious liberals will put up a huge fight against it.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.