As the nation hits a milestone few, if any, would celebrate, with the Treasury maxing out its legal borrowing limit for the federal government, lawmakers continued to grapple with ways to shrink the size of the U.S. debt in order to garner enough votes to approve an increase in the U.S. credit limit. But an epic political fight over how and whether to overhaul Medicare is roiling negotiations over a compromise.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., marking the date, used a bit of complex circular logic to return to the topic on which Democrats feel they have been making some political hay of late in the wake of an unpopular House GOP proposal to overhaul Medicare, giving seniors vouchers to purchase health insurance, with the leader, at the same time, admonishing Republicans for playing politics with the debt limit.
"If we don't act, if we allow the United States to default, the day of reckoning will be much, much worse than today," the leader warned, adding, "We can't afford to play these political games and trigger a default crisis that will lead to a catastrophe. We can't afford to make unrealistic demands or hold hostage policies that affect real people."
Reid called on his colleagues to raise the debt ceiling, after which there could, he said, be a major effort at "saving." This would seem to ignore the demands of many in his own party, like Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who have, among many, said that they are unwilling to increase the borrowing cap unless there is a framework in place to dramatically reduce the debt and deficit.
Reid noted one area of savings he supports - stripping away subsidies enjoyed by the oil and gas industry, though it is not a popular move with some in his own caucus. A key test vote is expected Wednesday, one that is likely to fail with bipartisan help from some Democrats, like Manchin.
And though the leader urged Republicans not to play politics with the debt limit, he then went after them anyway on Medicare and Medicaid just the same, an area where many, including in the Administration, want to find savings, with Reid completing the circle in his argument in a feat of rhetorical gymnastics.
"The people who want to keep giving big oil $4 billion a year are the same ones who want to take the social safety net away from the sick, seniors, and the poor. These people kick and scream about investing in cancer research or protecting student loans and help so many afford the rising cost of college, but ask them to recognize the absurdity of giving big oil taxpayer money it doesn't need, they cover their eyes and plug their ears," the leader admonished. Both Democrats and Republicans have said that the kind of savings they need to find, on the order of trillions of dollars, can only be found in the entitlement programs. And since Democrats, led by Reid and President Obama, have effectively put Social Security off the table, with Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, admitting as much last week, the only way to find big savings is in the health care entitlements: Medicare and Medicaid.
But if a major political win is scored by Democrats in a special election in New York on May 24, it would be in large part based on an argument that Republicans are going to destroy Medicare in their zeal to reign in spending. How, then, they can return to the bargaining table and find savings within the popular health insurance program used by many of the nation's seniors (aka: a hefty voting block), well that's anyone's guess.