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Democrats, GOP at odds over new Medicare, Social Security warning

By Alan Silverleib, CNN
  • Social Security and Medicare will run short of funds sooner than expected, a new report says
  • Republicans say entitlement reform has to be part of ongoing budget and debt ceiling talks
  • Democrats say the programs remain healthy, and accuse the GOP of trying to gut them

Washington (CNN) -- Social Security and Medicare will run short of funds earlier than expected, according a report released Friday by the programs' trustees.

What's the significance? Your answer, at least in the halls of Congress, apparently depends on your party affiliation.

Democrats responded to the news by arguing that both programs remain fundamentally healthy, and blasting the GOP for allegedly trying to dismantle them. Republicans called the report proof that entitlement reform needs to be part of negotiations regarding the federal budget and the need to raise the nation's debt ceiling.

In short, neither party changed its tune.

Social Security now has sufficient resources to pay 100% of promised benefits through 2036, according to the report. That's one year earlier than predicted in August 2010.

Medicare's hospital insurance program, meanwhile, should be able to pay full benefits through 2024. That is five years earlier than the trustees predicted last year, but later than had been projected before Congress passed the new health reform law.

The accelerated date of trust fund expiration is due to changes in economic assumptions, according to Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, released a statement declaring that "for decades" politicians have chosen to "kick the can down the road" when it comes to the solvency of Medicare and other popular entitlements.

"Today's trustees report is another reminder that we've run out of road," Boehner said. "With tens of millions of Baby Boomers beginning to retire, this is the moment to act. The time is now. ... It's time for the grown-ups in the room to stand and be counted."

Boehner highlighted the GOP leadership's proposal for fiscal year 2012, which includes major changes to Medicare starting in 2022. Under the Republican plan, which aims to cut deficits by a combined $4.4 trillion over the next decade, Washington would no longer directly pay bills for senior citizens in the popular program. Instead, recipients would choose a plan from a list of private providers, which the federal government would subsidize.

Individuals currently 55 or older would not be affected by the changes.

Democrats have repeatedly ripped the proposal, warning it would shred the health care security provided to the most vulnerable Americans in recent generations.

Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, also seized on the report as evidence of the need for major change.

The report "makes one thing very clear: the status quo is a plan to end Medicare and Social Security," Hatch declared.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, told reporters Thursday he would oppose any vote to raise the federal debt ceiling unless it were tied to significant changes over the long term to entitlements such as Medicare and Medicaid.

Geithner has said the government is on track to hit its current debt ceiling of roughly $14.3 trillion by May 16, though he recently indicated in a letter to Congress he can keep the country out of default until August 2.

Analysts warn that a failure to reach an agreement in time to avoid a national default could have devastating consequences. Among other things, Americans could be faced with skyrocketing interest rates and a plummeting dollar.

Democrats say Republicans -- by forcing negotiations over the debt ceiling -- are playing a game of "chicken" with the nation's economy.

For her part, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, insisted that Friday's report "makes it clear: Social Security and Medicare are strong, but Republican economic and fiscal policies have taken a direct hit at their finances."

"Democrats remain committed to strengthening and preserving Medicare and Social Security," Pelosi said. "Unlike the Republicans who voted to end Medicare as we know it, we must build on the reforms" in President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.

The health care changes passed by Democrats last year "strengthened Medicare and extended its solvency without reducing benefits to our seniors," Pelosi asserted.

"You simply can't buy the kind of retirement, disability and life-insurance protection on the private market that Social Security provides," added California Rep. Xavier Becerra, another member of the House Democratic leadership.

Obama's 2012 budget plan, in contrast to the GOP's, aims to cut deficits by a combined $4 trillion over the next 12 years without significantly changing any of the major entitlements.

Among other things, the president wants to repeal the Bush-era tax cuts on families making more than $250,000 -- a move strongly opposed by Republicans.

CNN's Jeanne Sahadi, Ted Barrett, and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report