Budget battles: The gauntlet has been thrown and thrown again Update: Sessions responds

The  GOP’s budget men have refused to relent in their calls for serious budgetary changes. House Budget Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Budget Committee ranking member Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) today sent a letter to President Barack Obama to demand he seriously address the need for Medicare reform. The letter states:

The country deserves honest  leadership on this critical issue. The Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 budget that you submitted  to Congress this year showed a lack of seriousness about the major fiscal challenges before the nation. And, although you abandoned this budget in a subsequent speech, your administration still has not formally submitted a revised FY2012 budget to Congress. Meanwhile, Senate Democrats have not passed a budget in 776 days, disregarding legal statute and further eroding the integrity of the federal budget process. Now more than ever is the time to fulfill our obligations under the law rather than skirt them, and we would respectfully  suggest that this mandate extends to the Medicare warnings issued each year that you have been in office.

Under the budget  you submitted to Congress, Medicare  as we know it will soon be unable to meet its promises to current beneficiaries. Rather than impose cuts on current beneficiaries and leave Medicare bankrupt  for future generations, the House-passed  FY2012 budget resolution outlines reforms to preserve and protect Medicare for those in or near retirement while saving and strengthening the program for future generations. Given the severity of this problem and your legal obligations, the nation needs leadership on this issue. Therefore, we reasonably expect your administration to submit a detailed legislative proposal to Congress addressing the Medicare funding warning as required by law.

The letter strikes an appropriately stern tone, especially in its accusation of a “lack of seriousness.” After all, the administration has ignored a key legal requirement under the Medicare Modernization Act 0f 2003. The “Medicare Trigger” demands the president produce a plan to shore up Medicare in response to a warning issued by the Medicare Trustees. The Trustees have issued warning after warning against the program’s impending insolvency, but the president has yet to produce a plan to remedy the imbalance.

The president ought to respond to the letter Ryan and Sessions sent him this morning. Trouble is, Democrats have been just as dogged in their demonization of the House-passed budget as Republicans have been in their disappointment in Democrats’ failure to produce an alternative. Just this morning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took to the Senate floor to say this about Sessions:

Madam President, on this side of the aisle for Democrats, protecting the seniors on Medicare is our top priority. I heard our friend, the Ranking Member on the Budget Committee, come here and talk for hours, and he keeps talking about things that really have no bearing on what I think is important for the country today, and that is we know that the Republicans have put forward a budget that destroys Medicare. …

So I would tell my friend, the Ranking Member of the Budget Committee, come and talk about the Republican plan to end Medicare as we know it. What about the subsidies for these oil companies? Shouldn’t we get rid of them? It’s time Republicans abandon their ideological plan to Medicare and work with us to strengthen our promise to seniors instead.

So, which is it? Does Ryan’s plan “destroy” Medicare or does it “save and strengthen” it for future generations? Perhaps the simplest way to answer that question is with another one: Why would Republicans waste time — and risk politically — to produce a plan to destroy a program that promises to destroy itself in short order? No plan is needed to do away with Medicare, as the Medicare Trustees’ 2011 report makes clear.

Medicare’s Hospital Insurance Fund will be insolvent by 2024 — five years earlier than predicted in the last Trustees’ report. The program runs a cash-flow deficit of $32 billion. Worst of all, in total, Medicare faces $36.8 trillion dollars (that’s trillion!!!) in unfunded obligations throughout the course of the next 75 years, according to Medicare’s non-partisan Chief Actuary.

Ryan and Sessions cite these facts in their letter — but they’ve been confirmed by Obama’s own Trustees. Does Reid really want to talk Medicare? Sessions is expected to respond this afternoon to Reid’s callout, and the Senate Majority Leader just might have his hands full. Sessions’ Southern drawl might sound gentle, but he’s been known to deliver fiery remarks (the senator’s YouTube channel receives a surprisingly high number of views for just that reason) — and, in this case, he’ll be bolstered by the facts.

Update: Sessions this afternoon did, in fact, deliver a rebuttal to Reid’s accusations. As this post was published, Sessions was on the Senate floor, expounding the Medicare Trustees’ report and taking Reid to task.

“[I am disappointed] the Majority Leader would have the gall to criticize the House members,” Sessions said. “Give me a break … Medicare is going broke and we need to do something to save it … The things I’ve been talking about do have bearing on the future of our country and I’m disappointed our Democratic leader doesn’t agree. … The debt, the economy, housing, gas prices — these don’t have bearing on the future of our country?”