The GOP Senate leader says the Ryan Medicare plan is "on the table," but Democrats will have to agree to at least some cuts if there is going to be an agreement on controlling the country's staggering debt.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, in an appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday, said he supports the plan by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan to transform Medicare into a voucherlike system.
But the Ryan plan isn't off-limits in negotiations: "It's on the table," the Kentucky Republican said, as long as Democrats bring something to the table as well.
"All that silly talk about how Medicare is not going to be a part of the solution is nonsense," Mr. McConnell said Friday. "Medicare will be a part of any agreement to begin to reduce our long-term debt."
Democrats have seized on House Republicans' plan to convert Medicare into a voucherlike program, saying it would "kill Medicare as we know it." They used the issue to help win a surprise victory in a special congressional election in New York last week, and party leaders said they'll try to capitalize on voters' concerns across the country.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, warned his Republican colleagues that they should throw Mr. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican and the chief architect of the GOP's Medicare reform effort, overboard or risk more electoral losses.
"We will oppose them in the budget negotiations if they don't abandon Ryan," Mr. Schumer said on "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "It will legitimately be one of the major issues of the election year in 2012. ... I've studied elections for awhile, and if either party moves too far to the extreme, they lose. Republicans are rapidly moving in that direction."
Mr. Schumer said his party is "likely to pick up the House" if the GOP doesn't ditch the Ryan plan. Democrats surely will continue to use the Medicare reform plan to attack Republicans as the campaign season heats up.
But if a bipartisan agreement includes cuts to Medicare, that could end up blunting those attacks - and Mr. McConnell said he believes both sides will have to accept a deal with cuts before the 2012 election.
"I would think that we will hopefully have something significant in this area by then," he said. "And the American people can decide whether they want to punish both sides for having done that, because it will take both sides to do it."
Vice President Joseph R. Biden has been holding talks in recent weeks with a bipartisan group from Congress to discuss ways to lower the nation's ballooning deficit and increase the federal $14.294 trillion debt ceiling, the government's legal limit on how much it can borrow to pay for its operations.
The government faces defaulting on its loans unless the debt limit is increased by Aug. 2.
While Democrats are opposed to Medicare cuts, the Biden group reportedly has included the government health plan in its talks.
Mr. McConnell said because Medicare is a significant contributor to the debt, it must be a target for cuts.
"You simply cannot get a comprehensive solution or a pathway to a solution on our debt and deficit problem and leave entitlements aside," he said. "You can't do anything about the single biggest problem we have without impacting Medicare."
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has insisted the Republican proposal isn't up for discussion.
"What we're talking about doing is not changing Medicare as we know it - that is, doing in a voucher system," said Mr. Reid last week. "We're not going to put up with that."
Reid spokesman Jon Summers on Friday accused Mr. McConnell and his GOP colleagues of "holding the United States' credit hostage to ram through their plan to end Medicare."
"Voters have resoundingly rejected this ideological agenda. Republicans should drop it and move on," Mr. Summers said.
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