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Senate Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer on Monday left open the possibility of reaching a budget deal that would include trimming Medicare as long as it did not cut benefits for seniors or privatize the program.
"That will be up to the negotiators," the New York Democrat said during a conference call. Schumer was referencing the bipartisan talks to raise the $14.3 trillion federal debt ceiling.
He was careful to note, however, that a deal including Medicare is possible "as long as it doesn't reduce benefits to the beneficiary."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last month demanded Medicare cuts in return for his support for any debt ceiling increase.
Schumer offered up cuts in payments to prescription drug makers as one possible way to save $100 billion or more as an example, as well as building on last year's health care overhaul to pay providers based on outcomes instead of procedures.
"We're taking the inefficiences and wringing them out of the system," Schumer said.
But Schumer challenged the GOP to give up on the House Republican budget blueprint, which aims to replace traditional Medicare with a voucher system to buy private insurance plans. It would only apply to future beneficiaries.
"Republicans won't give up on the House-passed plan to eliminate Medicare as we know it. ... If Sen. McConnell has other plans it mind, we should hear it," Schumer said.
Schumer and other Senators on the conference call — Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) — repeated that the House proposal to overhaul Medicare and transform it into a subsidy for insurance could not pass and must not be on the table for the debt ceiling talks.
"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 that 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.
Brown, Cardin and three other Democrats facing reelection next year — Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and John Tester (Mont.) — sent a letter to Vice President Joseph Biden asking that the administration keep cuts to seniors off the table.
"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 also is the principal co-sponsor of the Corker-McCaskill 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 GDP in the next decade. That proposal has come under heavy fire from the left and from seniors' groups like AARP. At the press conference announcing that bill, McCaskill called for reforming Social Security and Medicare, including means testing so that wealthy people like Warren Buffett do not receive prescription drugs paid for by taxpayers.