Paul C. Barton, Tennessean Washington Bureau
Advocacy groups and prominent congressional Democrats continue to take aim at Republican Sen. Bob Corker's proposals to raise eligibility ages for the nation's two biggest entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare.
From House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to the AARP and liberal voices on MSNBC, sources alarmed by such ideas are growing more vocal, in part out of concern they might end up as part of the deal to avoid the fiscal cliff, the combination of sharp federal spending cuts and income tax increases taking effect Jan. 1 unless Congress and the White House agree on an alternative deficit-reduction plan.
As part of a comprehensive plan to get the nation's long-term finances in order, Corker has proposed raising the eligibility age for Medicare to age 67 by 2027.
For Social Security, he is proposing that it reach age 68 by 2050. Reforms approved in 1983 are already raising the eligibility age for that program from 65 to 67 by 2022.
Numerous other conservative voices, including the Heritage Foundation think tank, second his ideas.
Corker's ideas are grounded in part in the proposals of the bipartisan deficit-reduction commission headed in 2010 by former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming and Erskine Bowles, White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration.
In addition, President Barack Obama, according to some reports, agreed in private negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner in summer 2011 with raising the Medicare eligibility as part of a "grand bargain" that would have also resolved a political struggle over increasing the debt limit.
Even moderate think tanks, such as Third Way, agree on slowly increasing eligibility ages for Social Security. But Third Way has not voiced a recommendation yet on eligibility ages for Medicare.
All of this is a part of a "divide-and-conquer strategy," said David Adcock, policy analyst at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
Adcock said those advocating eligibility age increases beginning at far-off dates know that those who will be most affected by them, America's young, don't really pay close attention to these debates.
It was the same in 1983, he said, when a special commission proposed raising the eligibility age to 67, which would affect only those in the second half of the baby boom.
"These are really benefit cuts," Adcock said, adding that tomorrow's beneficiaries deserve no less than today's.
For now, prominent liberals such as Pelosi sound most alarmed about the Medicare proposal.
In an op-ed piece Thursday in USA Today, the Democratic leader said raising the retirement age is part of a GOP plan to protect the wealthiest Americans from an income-tax increase as part of a deal on the fiscal cliff.
"Such a proposal is a reflection of the broader Republican assault on the middle class, seniors - and our future," Pelosi wrote.
But Corker remains unfazed.
"Medicare and Social Security are both headed to insolvency, and the longer we wait to put in place solutions, the more limited and draconian the options become," the Tennessee senator said in a statement Friday.
"We've proposed reforms to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that save these programs, allow us to meet our obligations to both older and younger Americans, and put our country on a path to fiscal solvency."
Among other Middle Tennessee lawmakers, Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander indirectly endorsed an increase in eligibility ages.
"It's my hope that the Supercommittee of Two - the president and the speaker - will come to an agreement that fixes our debt and gets the economy moving again," he said. "But I'm still waiting for the president to do his job, which is to recommend a specific plan to rein in entitlement spending, which is where our debt problem really is."
Alexander went on to cite the deficit-reduction proposal of this year's Republican vice presidential candidate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, which raises those ages, as an example of "reining in entitlement spending."
Among the area's U.S. House members, Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, said: "Raising the eligibility age for Medicare does not solve Medicare's financial problems but shifts them to seniors who often have trouble getting health insurance."
Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Jasper, said he was "open to reviewing any proposal that would put Medicare on solid fiscal footing as long as it does not cut benefits for current seniors," he said.
But two other Republicans, Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood and Diane Black of Gallatin, dodged questions about eligibility ages.
Blackburn's office referred only to an appearance she had on CNN last week. But in that appearance, she avoided discussing the eligibility age for Medicare despite being asked specific questions.
"The issue is finding a way to stabilize the systems," she said, while refusing to comment on specific ideas. "We don't know what's going to be in those proposals (to resolve the fiscal cliff)."
Blackburn has repeatedly voted on the House floor in favor of Ryan's budget ideas.
Black, too, has voted for Ryan's budgets and also refused to discuss specifics when asked about the matter last week.
"Structural comprehensive entitlement reform is necessary to avert the bankruptcy of these critical programs and prevent a debt crisis that would threaten the economic security of all Americans," she said.
"The president needs to come forward with specific reforms he's willing to make. To protect and strengthen our safety net, we need cooperation from both parties."