Rep. Van Hollen: ‘We Don't Need to Cut Medicare Benefits’

ABC News’ Rick Klein ( @rickklein ) reports:

As Democrats hammer Republicans for refusing to put taxes on the table, entitlement cuts remain a non-starter among leading Democrats – even as President Obama has offered to take on some of his party’s sacred cows.

On ABC’s “Top Line” today, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said that while Democrats support cost savings inside of Medicare, he and other leaders in his party staunchly oppose benefit cuts, higher premiums, or increased use of “means-testing” to scale down benefits based on recipients’ wealth.

“There are lots of ways you can modernize Medicare without slashing and hurting benefits, and we put those ideas on the table,” Van Hollen, D-Md., told us.

Pressed by Jonathan Karl whether he could accept benefit cuts as part of a broad deficit deal, Van Hollen said he doesn’t think that’s the right path.

“I've said I don't think that that's the right way to do it. I agree 100 percent that we don't need to cut Medicare benefits. But there are other things you can do to save considerable amounts of money in the Medicare program without cutting Medicare benefits.”

Van Hollen added that even outright Democratic opposition to Medicare cuts should be interpreted as something that binds President Obama’s negotiating position.

“While a lot of people have voiced their strong opinions on this issue, they've given the president the running room necessary to have a major discussion,” he said. “In the context of a larger agreement where the Republicans are willing to make some tough decisions when it comes to closing corporate tax loopholes and asking the folks at the very top … we're willing to give the president some running room to get a deal. We're not the ones who said, 'We, under no circumstances, we do anything.' If the president can reach a noble agreement…”

Van Hollen defended the president’s vow to veto a short-term fix that raises the debt ceiling but doesn’t carry the country through 2013, warning that anything less than a major package would drive interest rates up.

“That's a way to hurt the economy. What we need to do is do something that sends a signal. We're not going to continue to play Russian roulette with the economy. And we are acting like a third-world country when you're going month-to-month on the debt ceiling.”

Still, he expressed some openness to a package that leaves room for additional borrowing for perhaps another year – a smaller sum than the president is seeking.

“I'm not gonna right now say 100 percent whether I would reject any option that was ever put on the table,” he said. “We're looking for solutions here. I think what [Senate Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell put on the table, coupled with other things, may offer an opportunity. But of course, that's been shot down by Republicans in the House.”

“Here's the difference: Democrats have not said that we would allow the economy to tank and people to lose their jobs if we don't get things 100 percent our way. That has been the Republican position, to take the credit-worthiness of the United States hostage in this case. Big mistake.”

Watch the full interview with Rep. Chris Van Hollen HERE .

Also today, we checked in with Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy about the teams being assembled by the 2012 presidential contenders.

Mitt Romney, Rogin told us, is “by far the candidate who has the most infrastructure in place” when it comes to a foreign-policy apparatus. Tim Pawlenty, meanwhile, is the candidate who is hewing most closely to traditional neoconservative positions.

Watch the discussion with Josh Rogin HERE .

And with debt talks taking on Hollywood tones , we invited “Top Line” viewers to suggest the next plot turn worthy of “The West Wing” for today’s “Top Tweet” contest.

It would appear our programs have some overlap in viewership. But today’s winner, @WhatJoeThnkn , imagines a new role for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff: “maybe Rahm makes a sweeps-week guest appearance ala Josh Lyman, just in time to muscle a backroom deal?”

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