The Senate's top Republican said Friday that lawmakers should not fear voter backlash for trying to squeeze savings from Medicare to reduce federal debt, because it will take a bipartisan deal to tackle the popular program.
The remarks by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., were noteworthy because they came three days after a Democrat won a special House election in a heavily Republican district in upstate New York after accusing the GOP of wanting to kill Medicare.
Many Democrats have made clear that they intend to stick with that theme when they try to recapture the House and defend their slim Senate majority in next year's elections.
But McConnell told reporters that he believes Washington will agree to "something significant" to curb the giant health care program for the elderly well before the 2012 election, taking some of the edge off the issue.
He said trimming benefit programs like Medicare is the only way to find the savings needed to make a serious dent in the government's debt, a point on which budget experts on both sides concur.
"And the American people can decide whether they will want to punish both sides for having done that because it will take both sides to do it," he said.
He added, "I don't think either side will have to worry about political fallout next year."
The House-approved budget, written by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would turn the health care program for the elderly into a system that gives them vouchers to buy private insurance, leaving many exposed to higher out-of-pocket costs. People now 55 or older could stay with the traditional Medicare system. The Senate rejected that budget this week, though most GOP senators voted for it, and top Republicans have conceded it has little chance of enactment.
The issue is already resonating on the presidential campaign trail, where GOP contender Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, expressed support on Thursday for Ryan's budget after dodging questions about it earlier. Another candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, backed away from an initial criticism of Ryan's plan after being lambasted by fellow Republicans.
McConnell also reiterated his view on Friday that Medicare savings will have to be part of any deal between President Barack Obama and Congress to reduce the nation's huge and growing $14.3 trillion debt.
"Frankly if it were up to me, we'd be discussing Social Security as well," the GOP leader said, mentioning another costly program for the elderly that politicians have long avoided discussing as a source of budget savings.
Underscoring the political stakes, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused Republicans of "holding the United States' credit hostage to ram through their plan to end Medicare."
Reid Spokesman Jon Summers added, "Voters have resoundingly rejected this ideological agenda."
Republicans have demanded an agreement to cut federal spending as a price for their support for raising the government's debt ceiling. Democrats have acknowledged that such savings will have to be part of a debt limit agreement, which the Obama administration says must be completed by early August.
McConnell, like many Republicans, said tax increases should not be part of any debt-cutting deal that may emerge from talks involving Vice President Joe Biden and top lawmakers of both parties. He did not answer directly, though, when asked whether higher taxes should be off the table for those discussions.
The GOP leader, who does not face re-election until 2014, wouldn't specify how he would change Medicare or how much savings he wants from the program.