WASHINGTON (AP) — Even as Vice President Joe Biden gave his most optimistic assessment yet of budget talks he's leading, President Barack Obama's Democratic allies in the Senate signaled Tuesday a harder line on Medicare. That stance is complicating any effort to produce a deal to cut the deficit by $2 trillion or more over the coming decade or so.
Biden said that he's confident that the talks will produce an agreement on cutting the deficit "well beyond" $1 trillion over 10 to 12 years. The talks are aimed at finding spending cuts to accompany must-do legislation allowing the government to continue to borrow to finance its operations and avoid defaulting on U.S. bonds.
Senate Democrats promised that any Medicare cuts in the measure would come from health care providers rather than cutting back benefits. The hard line came even as Republicans showed at least some willingness to kill special interest tax breaks this year with a vote on ending the annual $5 billion ethanol tax subsidy.
(Read more about debt-ceiling negotiations and agricultural subsidies at AdvisorOne.)
Leaving the Capitol after the group's seventh negotiating session, Biden said he's convinced that the group can come up with an agreement that increases the so-called debt limit and makes significant headway on Obama's promise to cut the deficit by $4 trillion over the next decade or so.
Republicans insist that increasing the nation's $14.3 trillion debt limit be matched with a commensurate level of spending cuts. But they also want the legislation to provide enough borrowing room so that there would only need to be one vote on the politically toxic topic before next year's elections.
However, it would take cuts in the $2.5 trillion range to meet both the GOP requirements and even Biden's rosy update seems to leave the group short of the goal.
The task wasn't made any easier with Tuesday's vow by top Senate Democrats that any deal this summer to cut the deficit won't cut benefits for people enrolled in Medicare.
"We will not allow cuts to seniors' benefits," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Republicans are pressing for savings from the rapidly growing Medicare program, but Democrats stand adamantly against proposals to raise the eligibility age for the program, require wealthier seniors to pay more for Medicare or boosting copayments for visits to doctors and hospitals.
While Democrats are holding firm on Medicare cuts, Republicans maintain that tax increases are also "off the table." Unless either side shows flexibility, that makes it difficult, to say the least, to come up with deficit savings in the $2 trillion-plus range.