06/14/2011 04:09 pm ET | Updated Aug 14, 2011

Senate Democrats: We Will Not Let GOP Cut Medicare

WASHINGTON -- Medicare benefits should not be cut as part of a deal to raise the debt ceiling, Senate Democrats said on Tuesday, drawing a firm distinction with Republicans who have called for major changes to the program.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) rebuked Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for his hard-line stance on Medicare after the top Republican senator said he will only support a final debt ceiling deal if it makes changes to the program.

McConnell and all but five senate Republicans voted in support of the House budget plan written by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), which transforms Medicare into a voucher-like program for future seniors.

"Basically [McConnell] is saying that if he can't dismantle Medicare all at once, he wants to do it in pieces," Schumer said. "We will not let him succeed."

Republicans have already said that tax increases, or even ending subsidies, cannot be part of the deal to raise the debt limit, with the Treasury Department estimates must be done by Aug. 2 to avoid default. A bipartisan group from the House, Senate and White House is working on a deal to raise the debt ceiling, perhaps by more than $2 trillion, in exchange for trillions in cuts.

"Not matter what we do in these budget talks we must preserve the program in its current form, and we will not allow cuts to seniors' benefits," Schumer said.

Without taxes or cuts to Medicare benefits, though, there are questions about how they can reach that final figure.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid declined to comment when asked whether he would support Medicare cuts if Republicans agreed to end certain subsidies or raise taxes.

Still, Democrats said that any changes to Medicare would be in the form of delivery reform to avoid cutting benefits for seniors, along the lines of the Medicare reform made in President Barack Obama's health care reform last year.

"Today we are here to say to the Republicans we will not allow them to balance the budget on the backs of seniors," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "It is time to take the benefits of seniors that they rely on off the table."