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Senate Democrats Plot Move To Make Medicare Changes Harder

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WASHINGTON -- As part of a midterm elections effort to portray Democrats as the party protecting and nurturing the middle class, the Democratic Senate leadership is eyeing a way to make it harder for lawmakers to cut Medicare.

The proposal, which was outlined by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in a small briefing with reporters, would establish a mandatory 60-vote threshold for any legislative proposal to raise the age for Medicare benefits or to reduce those benefits.

"We don’t have all the details yet. But we would make it harder to either cut benefits or raise the age," Schumer said.

Details of the policy were indeed quite vague, and it was not certain the idea would be pursued. But an aide said that to institute the threshold, Democrats probably would have to amend the Budget Act of 1974, which includes the so-called Byrd rule -- named after the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) -- that bars Congress from adding "extraneous" measures to budget reconciliation bills.

Another prohibition already on the books bars changing Social Security through the reconciliation process, and it wouldn't be too great a leap to suggest adding Medicare.

The bill to make the change could be subject to a filibuster, meaning that it would likely need 60 votes for passage in the Senate. Befitting the political purpose of the entire enterprise, if Republicans were to object, they would risk being portrayed as against protecting Medicare from cuts.

Still, House Republicans would be unlikely to go along.

Such a proposal could nonetheless be advantageous for Democrats, who have been routinely attacked over the Medicare Advantage cuts included in the president's health care act.

If Democrats did push this new measure, and if it somehow passed, it would have no impact on actual legislation in 2014. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has already said that her chamber will not produce a new budget for next year, preferring to live by spending caps agreed to in the two-year deal she worked out with her House counterpart, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), back in December.

"It would be entirely symbolic because they've already said there's not going to be a budget," said Stan Collender, a budget expert with Qorvis Communications.

Yet it could make it tougher to cut Medicare down the road, should Democrats and Republicans again find themselves at loggerheads over spending and again try to change spending plans through budget reconciliation. Though such bills cannot be filibustered, an amended Byrd rule would leave the 60-vote threshold intact for Medicare. And that would put the safety net program off limits in any future budget deal that might pursue the sort of grand bargain that President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) flirted with in 2011.

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