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Health On The Hill Transcript: Democrats, Republicans Stake Out Positions In Budget Talks

Jun 20, 2011

PBS Newshour's David Chalian talks with Jackie Judd about the latest developments in the budget negotiations being led by Vice President Joe Biden and the role of Medicaid and Medicare in those talks.

Watch the video  or listen to the audio.

Transcript:

JACKIE JUDD:  Good Day, This is Health on the Hill. I’m Jackie Judd.

The bipartisan debt-reduction talks led by Vice President Biden enter an intense phase this week with four sessions planned. In the words of the vice president, participants are "getting down to the real hard stuff." The negotiations, of course, involve spending cuts sufficient to win the Republicans’ backing to raise the debt limit before August 2nd. On "Meet the Press" yesterday, Senator Dick Durbin—the assistant majority leader and a close ally of President Obama’s—suggested Medicare is on the table.

SOUNDBITE:

David Gregory:  Would you then support a package that involved cuts to Medicare benefits if that’s what was required for a grand bargain?

Sen. Dick Durbin:  I certainly wouldn’t go as far as the House Republican budget, which I think would eliminate Medicare as we know it today.  But there are ways to make health savings in Medicare.  Health savings that will mean it will be a solvent program for so much longer.  We shouldn’t, though, break the basic promise to the American people that Medicare is going to protect them in their retirement. 

JACKIE JUDD:  David Chalian, political editor for the "Newshour" on PBS,  has been following the Biden negotiations closely and he joins us. David, thank you for being here. 

What was Sen. Dick Durbin trying to telegraph there? It’s on the table, but we need to protect the promise made to seniors?

DAVID CHALIAN:  Right, he completely decided not to answer David Gregory’s actual question and made it about the Ryan budget.  My understanding: Democrats on the Hill say that this notion of raising the eligibility age for Medicare, or perhaps means testing on Medicare so that wealthier, elderly Americans pay more for their benefits – those types of savings are very much on the table.  Where the Democrats are drawing the line - because they have demonized this Paul Ryan budget to their political advantage, as we saw in that special election in New York - what they need to do is separate themselves from a complete overhaul of Medicare that makes it private and hands out vouchers. That’s where they’re going to draw this dividing line.  But I think what you’re hearing, or at least what I’m picking up on the Hill from folks who are involved in these negotiations: what the President laid out in April at George Washington University, where he said IPAB  - the Board he has proposed to oversee some of these savings in Medicare and efficiencies – that’s not going to be enough. The Democrats are going to have to come up with a little bit more in Medicare savings in order to, as you were saying, win that Republican support to raise the debt limit.

JACKIE JUDD:  And very difficult to broach that subject with voters.

DAVID CHALIAN:  It's politically unpopular, we know that.  But this whole notion, Jackie, of what is happening in the Biden negotiations is politically unpopular.  The whole thing that’s going on here is, we’re going to touch third rails of politics in order to also do this very unpopular thing that nobody likes, which is to raise the debt limit so that we continue to borrow more money from the Chinese to pay our bills.  So, nothing that's going on there is popular with the voters, except that the voters want something done. They’re tired of seeing the stasis in Washington.

JACKIE JUDD:  Last week Sen. Jay Rockefeller, one of the more liberal Democrats in the U.S. Senate, said that he was very concerned that Medicare was off the table, because it has such a potent political constituency behind it.  And so people, negotiators, will be turning to look, and Medicaid, which does not have the same political constituency -- what are you hearing about that?

DAVID CHALIAN:  Well, Sen. Rockefeller has rung the bell on this, and you've seen now Democrats coalescing around and saying, this is actually a line in the sand.  I think that they’re not willing to cross this notion that Paul Ryan put in his plan, in the House Republican plan, to block-grant Medicaid funding to the states, which will really shift the cost to the states, even though it’s a federal-state program.  I think Democrats actually have drawn a line around that, more so than on the two items we were just talking about in Medicare.  My sense is that Medicare is still very much a part of these negotiations.  They’ll look for savings in Medicaid, but transforming Medicaid in expense of saving Medicare, because that is politically more popular, I don’t think is what the Democrats have planned.  And that’s not my sense of the White House ...

JACKIE JUDD:  And so maybe Rockefeller was just reminding his colleagues, I’m here; I'm watching. 

DAVID CHALIAN:  I think that’s more of what was happening, perhaps.

JACKIE JUDD:  Yesterday on one of the talk shows, the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, said that if a grand deal can't be made, that perhaps we should begin thinking about a short-term deal to raise the debt limit.  Is there a consensus in the Republican Party for that idea, or was he just floating a balloon?

DAVID CHALIAN:  I definitely think he was just floating a balloon, and I think he wanted to -- remember, he doesn’t have a seat at the table; his representative there is Jon Kyl, his number two.  I think he wanted to remind Vice President Biden and those sitting around the table that this is all about everyone not wanting to vote on this again before the 2012 election.  So if you want to raise the debt limit enough, more than $2 trillion the president is requesting in order to avoid a vote before election time, there's only one way to do it, according to Mitch McConnell, and that is entitlement reform and this grand bargain.  So I think he wanted to remind everyone, guys, we can do a short-term deal, because Republicans don't want to look like they are for default.  They don't want to look irresponsible here in any way.  But they are only going to raise it a little bit, whatever they can come up with in cuts they're going to match.  And what Mitch McConnell is saying is, bring it back.  Let's have the president argue again six months before his election, eight months before his election, that they need to raise the debt limit.   It's one of the most unpopular votes for members of Congress for either party.  Nobody likes to take that vote on raising the debt limit.

JACKIE JUDD:  Do you have a sense of what the White House is hoping to be able to say at the end of this week?

DAVID CHALIAN:  They have set themselves sort of an internal deadline that they'd like to get this done before the July 4 recess.   We know that we have through August 2, as you mentioned at the top of the show.  The White House is looking to say, listen, three hours every day for four days this week we now have dug into the hard stuff, as Vice President Biden said.  They're not ready to announce a deal this week.  I think this is going to go a little closer to the limit, to the August 2 deadline than many on the Hill would like to see.  But the White House is looking for a commitment that a deal is possible.

Can I just add one complication here of what is going to throw the White House off their message a little bit?   That Gang of Five, those bipartisan senators that are also trying to work on a huge deficit reduction deal, they're going to release their plan this week, possibly, according to one of the members, Mark Warner, the Democrat from Virginia.  They're looking for $4 trillion in reductions.  They are trying to get buy-in from Republicans on raising revenues, and they are going to attack Medicare and Medicaid, probably more aggressively than the White House would like.  So that's going to complicate what’s going on in the Biden negotiations, as well, because this other plan is going to emerge. 

JACKIE JUDD:  I guess it shouldn’t be easy when you’re looking for trillions of dollars, right?

DAVID CHALIAN:  Right.  This is real money and this is upending the course that the country has been on for a decade or so.

JACKIE JUDD:  Thank you so much, David Chalian, political editor for the "Newshour" on PBS.

DAVID CHALIAN:  My pleasure.

JACKIE JUDD:  Great having you here.

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