GOP Senators: Medicare Privatization May Be Too Much To Tackle Right Away

J. Scott Applewhite

Republican senators are signaling that they shouldn't be tackling Medicare privatization anytime soon, at least not as part of repealing and replacing Obamacare.

The to do list for the Senate is already long. Senators are going to have Trump's cabinet to confirm, and they have to find a way to make good on Obamacare repeal and replace plan that many predict will take years. Add to it some motivation to tackle tax cuts and President-elect Trump's priority to pass a major infrastructure bill and suddenly overhauling traditional Medicare looks like a bridge too far, according to GOP senators who spoke with TPM.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, was blunt about the outlook for a major Medicare overhaul.

"I think we should leave Medicare for another day," he said. "Medicare has solvency problems. We need to address those, but trying to do that at the same time we deal with Obamacare falls in the category of biting off more than we can chew."

What began as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) hinting he'd be interested in debating Medicare privatization or what he calls "premium support" as part of repealing and replacing Obamacare has led some Republican senators to try to put on the brakes early and send a message that they have plenty to do already.
Messing with Medicare is a highly controversial and politically risky business. Republicans know that.

"I think we got a pretty full agenda," said Sen. John Thune (R-SD), who noted that he wanted to get around to "entitlement reform" at some point.

Thune wouldn't say if he was supportive of Ryan's past plans for privatization.

"There have been a number of things out there over the years. Gradually phasing in an increasing retirement age, for example, doing some kind of income testing, I think are things that would probably attract, hopefully, significant bipartisan support," Thune said. He added that he'd "have to look a little closer at what he's proposed."

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, also seemed to have concerns about whether a plan to overhaul Medicare would have enough support even within his party.

"There is nothing too much around here if we can get enough votes, we'll do a lot of this stuff," Hatch said adding later that "it might be way too much, but we'll have to see. I don't know quite what the conference wants to do."

Making matters more complicated is the fact that no one is quite sure what their President-elect is thinking at this point. Trump seemed dubious about any plans to change Medicare on the campaign trail. He promised that the programs would remain intact. However, his nomination of Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) to lead HHS leaves an open question about what his intentions actually are. Price told reporters just two weeks ago–when he was being considered for the cabinet–that he saw an opportunity to pursue a Medicare overhaul as part of budget reconciliation in the 2018 fiscal year budget. Price has also been a close ally of Paul Ryan's and a long-term advocate of privatizing Medicare.

Most Senate Republicans agreed that there was still a lot of work to do on Obamacare before the topic of Medicare changes could even come up in the Senate.

"I'm all for a kind of step-by-step approach, so let's do one thing at a time," Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) told TPM. "A step-by-step approach makes a whole lot more sense as opposed to something big and comprehensive. We don't do big, comprehensive very well here in Washington, D.C."

At this point Republican senators have yet to settle on a process to repeal and replace Obamacare – a key campaign promise. They are looking at repealing first and then settling on a long transition to phase out Obamacare. That transition would give them more time to come up with an alternative plan, but even that is still a major legislative hurdle for them.

Adding something else on top of it was too much for most.

"It's just too much to bite off," Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) told TPM. He added that he thought Ryan's plan was "worthy of consideration," but that ultimately any changes to Medicare should be considered in a bipartisan manner.

Democrats have already signaled they are prepping for a fight on Medicare, with Price's nomination to be the HHS secretary serving as a proxy war over privatization of Medicare.

Still, Democrats aren't convinced yet that Republicans are simply going to abandon their fight to change Medicare while they have control of the House, Senate and White House.

"Of course they are. They live to go after social insurance. First thing Gingrich did when they had a Republican House and Senate was go after Medicare. First thing George Bush did when he had a House and Senate after the 2004 elections was to try to privatize Social Security," said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH). "Why would you hire Tom Price, who is specialized in privatization of Medicare and raising the eligibility age? So that will be one of the first things they do, and that will show working class America that their mission is always the billionaire's agenda."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lauren Fox is a reporter at Talking Points Memo.
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