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Democrats Thread the Needle on Medicare

Senate Leaders Want to Seem Mindful of Deficit

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Sen. Charles Schumer, seen talking to reporters in March, said Democrats might support a targeted trimming of Medicare as part of a bipartisan budget deal.

Senate Democratic leaders are attempting a balancing act on Medicare by showing openness to containing the program's ballooning costs but still drawing the line at cutting benefits.

The gambit is aimed at convincing voters that Democrats take the need to reduce the deficit seriously but will protect seniors more than Republicans a message Democratic leaders think will help them retain their Senate majority against tough odds in 2012.

In a move that appears designed for media consumption, five Democratic Senators up for re-election in 2012 sent a letter Monday to Vice President Joseph Biden asking him to hold firm against cutting benefits for seniors and to reject the House-passed proposal to transform Medicare during his bipartisan negotiations to increase the $14.3 trillion debt limit.

"For the good of the nation's seniors, [the House plan] must remain off the table," the Senators wrote.

But in a follow-up conference call with reporters, Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer left open the possibility of reaching a deal that would include trimming Medicare.

"That will be up to the negotiators," the New York Democrat said. He was careful to note, however, that a deal including Medicare is possible "as long as it doesn't reduce benefits to the beneficiary."

In-cycle Sens. Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Benjamin Cardin (Md.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) signed the letter to Biden.

"Our nation's seniors are not responsible for the fiscal challenges we face, and they should not be responsible for shouldering the burden of reducing our deficits," they wrote.

McCaskill's signature on the letter is notable, given that she has been among the most hawkish of Democrats on the need to cut the growth of spending on Medicare and Social Security in order to save the programs for the future.

She is the principal Democratic co-sponsor of a proposal that would require across-the-board cuts to federal spending including Social Security and Medicare benefits unless Congress cuts the overall level of spending to 20.6 percent of the gross domestic product in the next decade. That proposal has come under heavy fire from the left and from seniors' groups such as AARP, as well as from some of her fellow Democrats. At the press conference announcing that bill, McCaskill said they need to be reformed, and she endorsed means testing.

"Will I fight like a tiger to make sure that we protect Social Security? I absolutely will. But should we be buying prescription drugs for [billionaire businessman] Warren Buffett with federal tax dollars? Well, that's just nuts!" she said then.

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