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.
"She is trying to carve out a middle ground there," said a Senate Democratic aide, noting that while she has supported some ways to reduce waste, "she does not support a dismantling of the Medicare system like the [House] plan."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last month demanded Medicare cuts in return for his support for any debt ceiling increase.
Schumer offered as an example cuts in payments to drugmakers as one way to save $100 billion or more, as well as building on last year's health care overhaul to pay providers based on outcomes.
But Schumer challenged the GOP to give up on the House Republican budget blueprint, which aims to replace traditional Medicare with a subsidy to buy private insurance. It would apply only to future beneficiaries, but it was defeated on the Senate floor before the recess.
"Republicans won't give up on the House-passed plan to eliminate Medicare as we know it. ... If Sen. McConnell has other plans in mind, we should hear it," Schumer said.
McConnell, for his part, ripped Democrats for focusing on the election instead of coming up with a specific proposal or budget of their own.
"They have no plan, no proposals, no sense of urgency," McConnell said on the Senate floor. "They run the White House and they run the Senate, and yet their entire approach is to sit back and wait. ... Just wait for the next election. Let Republicans offer solutions, and then we'll attack them and pretend you care about jobs."
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart praised Schumer for being open to Medicare savings.
"Looks like Sen. Schumer is joining the bipartisan chorus that wants Medicare reform as part of the deficit reduction talks," he said. "I'm not sure how he squares that with his party's campaign ads, but this is certainly encouraging. Maybe next, Democrats will actually offer a budget — or at least a plan. But this is progress."
But Democrats pushed back against that notion. "Republicans will be forced to either join us in taking on the big insurance and drug companies and thus admit that the reforms we made to Medicare in the health care law were the right thing to do all along, or else they can continue to stand by the [House] plan," one senior Senate Democratic aide said.
Schumer and other Senators on the conference call — including Brown and Cardin — repeated that the House proposal to overhaul Medicare and transform it into a subsidy for insurance could not pass.
"The Republicans who are negotiating on the debt ceiling are trying to use it to advance their extreme agenda," Brown said. Brown went further than Schumer, saying Medicare should be off the table entirely as part of the debt ceiling talks and should be dealt with separately.
"Let's take Medicare totally off the table now," Brown said.