WASHINGTON – Two Senate rebels jumped into Congress’ cut-the-deficit competition Tuesday, proposing to raise the age of Medicare eligibility to 67 and to increase monthly premiums for millions of current beneficiaries.
“We can’t save Medicare as we know it,” said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., who authored the plan with Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma. “We can only save Medicare if we change it,” he added in an apparent jab at President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats.
Democrats reacted with criticism of the proposal, which Coburn said was designed to rescue the financially imperiled program and help the nation confront a “wall of debt.”
Republicans betrayed no sign of support either.
If nothing else, the response underscored the difficulty of legislative free-lancing at a time the Obama administration and congressional leaders are struggling to negotiate a compromise that cuts future deficits and clears the way for an increase in the nation’s $14.3 trillion debt.
Without a debt limit increase by Aug. 2, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has warned, the government could default, risking calamity for the U.S. economy and serious effects worldwide.
Republicans walked out of bipartisan talks last week but nevertheless said negotiations had been fruitful. In the days since, Obama has stepped up his personal involvement in the effort.
After meeting separately Monday with the Senate’s Republican and Democratic leaders, he invited the Democratic leadership to a White House meeting today.
In the earlier talks, led by Vice President Joe Biden, key lawmakers had outlined a series of proposals to cut several hundred billion dollars over the next decade.
Other proposed cuts were on the table, including nearly $1 trillion from the assumed end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Officials familiar with the negotiations say Republicans are reluctant to count that money toward any agreement, saying they want more tangible cuts in domestic programs before agreeing to an increased debt limit.
Also in the way of an agreement is a partisan dispute over taxes, which Republicans don’t want raised, and Medicare benefits, which Democrats don’t want cut. Lieberman and Coburn were not nearly as reluctant, including both in their prescription for Medicare.