A proposal to cut Medicare spending in order to fund the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program is being met with fierce opposition from U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL,9), other House Democrats and senior advocates.
On a Monday afternoon conference call, Schakowsky and U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui (D-CA,6), co-chairs of the Congressional Task Force on Seniors, joined representatives from senior advocacy groups in denouncing a Senate-passed measure that would reauthorize TAA at Medicare's expense. The TAA program provides aid to U.S. workers displaced as a result of trade agreements.
"All of us adamantly reject using Medicare as an ATM for unrelated issues, regardless of their merits," Schakowsky said. "We support Trade Adjustment Assistance. In fact, I'd like to see it improved by increasing benefits, ... but we are adamantly opposed to cutting Medicare to pay for it."
The Senate passed the TAA reauthorization legislation last month when it approved the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) measure, a bill that would grant President Barack Obama "fast-track" trade authority. Fast tracking would limit debate on the final Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement and prevent Congress from making changes to it.
The House has not yet taken up the trade legislation, but it could do so as early as this week.
To offset the cost of extending TAA, the Senate-approved bill seeks to save $700 million by extending Medicare sequestration cuts through 2024 and another $250 million over the next 10 years by adjusting Medicare reimbursements for renal dialysis services for those with acute kidney injuries.
"We believe that where we can findings savings that improve efficiencies in Medicare, those savings should be reinvested in Medicare -- used to improve benefits, reduce cost sharing and expand access -- not to pay for something that has nothing to do with Medicare," Schakowsky said. "Medicare, as I said, is not an ATM machine to be used by Republicans in the House or Senate looking for a pay-for."
Representatives from the Alliance for Retired Americans and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare were also on the call.
"It is difficult for us to find any logic for this proposal," said Alliance for Retired Americans Executive Director Rich Fiesta. "The Medicare system should not be used, in our view, as a piggy bank to fund non-Medicare programs. It would set a terrifically horrible precedent."
Schakowsky said the push for extending TAA, a move supported by the White House, comes in an "effort to entice a vote for the trade agreement."
"I think this pay-for does make it very hard for that strategy to work," the congresswoman said, adding that she would not support TAA with a Medicare offset.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA,12) made it clear last week that the TAA "bill is a nonstarter in terms of how it is paid for." Speaking at a press conference last Thursday, Pelosi added that she is "hopeful that, working together in a bipartisan way, that we can come up with a better pay-for so that we can have that [TAA] bill pass so that we can move on to the taking up of the TPA."
The minority leader's statements came after the Progressive Caucus sent a letter on Monday signed by 61 House Democrats to Speaker John Boehner (R-OH,8) and Pelosi, urging against "cuts to critical social programs like Medicare" to fund the TAA program.
"We ask that the current Trade Adjustment Assistance legislation change in two ways. We should find an offset to Trade Adjustment Assistance that does not cut from critical programs that working families rely on," the letter reads. "We should also increase funding for Trade Adjustment Assistance to account for projected job losses due to big trade deals, and extend assistance to public sector workers who have lost their jobs."
In addition to Schakowsky, House Democrats from Illinois who initially signed the letter include U.S. Reps. Daniel Lipinski (D-IL,3), Luis Gutierrez (D-IL,4) and Cheri Bustos (D-IL,17).
Schakowsky said the Progressive Caucus has reopened the letter and is collecting additional signatures now that more lawmakers have learned about the proposed TAA Medicare offset.
"We will work to get more of our colleagues to sign (the) letter to make it clear to everyone that this is an unacceptable pay-for," Schakowsky stressed.
The congresswoman said there is "definitely a groundswell of opposition to" using Medicare savings to fund the TAA program. If such a proposal came before the full House, Schakowsky said there is a good possibility that it would be rejected.
"I'm feeling optimistic that this is not going to be acceptable in the House of Representatives, perhaps for different reasons for Republicans and Democrats," she said. "I think there's a very realistic chance it would fail."