WASHINGTON (AP) — It's not just about taxes. There's another big obstacle to overcome as Congress and President Barack Obama work to skirt the fiscal cliff: deep divisions among Senate Democrats over whether to consider cuts to popular benefit programs like Medicare and Medicaid.
Much of the focus during negotiations seeking an alternative to $671 billion in automatic tax increases and spending cuts beginning in January has centered on whether Republicans would agree to raising taxes on the wealthy. Obama insists that tax increases on the wealthy must be part of any deal, even as White House officials concede that government benefit programs will have to be in the package too.
But even if GOP lawmakers agree to raise taxes, there is no guarantee Democrats can come up with enough votes in the Senate to cut benefit programs — as Republicans are demanding.
"We cannot come up with the solution for Medicare in the next two or three weeks," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. "It's too important, it's too serious, when it comes to this fiscal cliff debate."
Durbin has long said Democrats must be willing to discuss cuts to benefit programs in exchange for tax increases on the wealthy. But, he said Wednesday, the issue is too complicated to address in a short postelection session of Congress.
Republicans complain that Democrats are taking issues off the table, even as more GOP lawmakers are reluctantly considering tax increases.
"Democrats like to pretend as though they're the great protectors of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid," said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "They make solemn pledges all the time about how they won't even entertain a discussion about reform. What they don't say is that ignoring these programs is the surest way to guarantee their collapse."
There's a growing consensus among Senate Democrats and the White House that Social Security should be exempt from any deficit-reduction package. But some centrist Democrats in the Senate argue that fellow Democrats must be willing to consider cuts to Medicare and Medicaid in order to get concessions from Republicans on taxes.
"It has to be both — a significant revenue increase as well as spending cuts," said Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who is retiring as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said rising health care costs in Medicare and Medicaid are helping to drive future spending, making them an essential part of a long-term deficit-reduction package.
"I've been part of every bipartisan group here. We've always put everything on the table," Conrad said. "If you're going to solve this problem, you're going to have to deal with where the spending is and the revenue can be raised."