In it, but not of it. TPM DC

Senate Democrats Eye Rule Change To Avert Medicare Benefit Cuts

Hagpa0ifq9xp8ytd1y0y
AP Photo / J. Scott Applewhite

One plank of Senate Democrats' new "fair shot for everyone" agenda is to "protect Medicare for seniors." That goes beyond opposing Republican proposals to convert the program into a voucher-like system. One option they're weighing is to amend the budget process and require 60 votes -- rather than 51 -- to pass any proposal that reduces Medicare benefits.

"We don't have all the details yet. But we would make it harder to either cut benefits or raise the [Medicare] age," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY), a chief architect of the agenda, told a small group of reporters Thursday on Capitol Hill. "That's one of the things we're looking at."

One way to achieve that, Schumer said, is by amending the reconciliation process -- which lets a majority pass a budget with 51 votes, as opposed to the 60 votes ordinarily required to break a filibuster. There are a handful of exceptions under the so-called Byrd Rule: for instance, a majority cannot use 51 votes to pass a budget that raises the deficit outside the 10-year window. The Democrats' plan would add another exception that renders "extraneous" any bill that cuts Medicare benefits -- either by raising the eligibility age, privatizing the program as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) wants to do, or any other benefit reduction.

But here's the problem. Amending that rule means passing legislation that can be filibustered. So Democrats would need 60 votes to ensure its passage. But if Republicans block it, they'll make themselves vulnerable to Democratic attacks for plotting to cut Medicare benefits if they win the majority. It's a political win-win ahead of a tough mid-term election, given strong public opposition to benefit cuts.

"Seniors turn out at a high rate in the off year, and it will be crystal clear that Democrats will fight to protect Medicare, but Republicans won't," said a Democratic leadership aide.

George Washington University professor Sarah Binder, a leading expert on Senate rules, explained why Democrats' proposal can pass with 60 votes.

"Sounds like Schumer/Democrats' plan would amend the Congressional Budget
Act," she said in an email. "That's statute (not a Senate rule), and so the threshold to bring to a floor vote if GOP opposed it would be 60 votes. (Although they are aiming to amend the Byrd Rule, the Byrd Rule is technically incorporated into the Budget Act, not into Senate rules.)"

The procedural tweak wouldn't apply to Medicare reimbursement cuts to providers and insurers, which were included in Obamacare and various bipartisan laws enacted by Congress in recent years.

A more far-reaching possibility is for Democrats to invoke the so-called nuclear option, as they did with filibuster reform, and change the standing rules of the Senate to require 60 votes for any Medicare benefit cut. But Schumer indicated that Democrats aren't considering that route.

"You can do this legislatively," he said. "You can put it on the floor."

If the proposal reaches the Senate floor, Republicans are all but certain to block it because it's a direct affront to the Ryan budget, which nearly all of them voted for. But for now, they're staying on message and instead highlighting the Medicare cuts that Democrats enacted under Obamacare.

"I can assure you that no amount of legislative penance will cause seniors to forget what [Schumer] and his Democrat colleagues did to [seniors]," said Don Stewart, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).

This article has been updated to include additional reporting.