* Tells fellow liberals, reforms can protect, improve health programs
* 'Fiscal cliff' talks should not include Medicare, Medicaid
WASHINGTON Nov 27 Assistant Senate Democratic Leader Dick Durbin, one of U.S. President Barack Obama's leading allies, urged fellow liberals on Tuesday to consider reforming the Medicare and Medicaid healthcare programs that they have long fought to shield from cuts. "Progressives should be willing to talk about ways to ensure the long-term viability of Medicare and Medicaid" programs for the elderly and poor, Durbin said in excerpts of a speech he is to deliver later in the day.
Most Democrats have avoided talking about cutting these two "entitlement" programs, which have been adding to U.S. budget deficits because of the growing numbers of participants and escalating healthcare costs.
Instead, Obama and Democrats in Congress mostly have stressed the need to raise income taxes on the wealthy as part of renewed efforts to reduce budget deficits that have topped $1 trillion in each of the past four years.
Lately, Durbin has made high-profile remarks about eventually reducing Medicare and Medicaid costs, just as Republicans have begun talking about raising revenues as part of a tax overhaul effort next year.
On Sunday, Durbin raised the possibility of Democrats accepting Medicare reforms to make higher-income seniors pay more for their care. He made his remarks on ABC's "This Week" program.
The Illinois senator said, however, that the debate over Medicare and Medicaid should not be part of the more immediate negotiations on averting the "fiscal cliff" of steep tax hikes and spending cuts.
"Meaningful reforms can protect the vulnerable and improve care and efficiency, leaving the programs stronger for future generations," Durbin said in excerpts of the speech he is to deliver at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
Durbin's remarks sought to foster productive talks aimed at averting on Jan. 1 the fiscal cliff, the start of about $600 billion worth of tax hikes and automatic spending cuts that could shove the nation into a recession early next year if allowed to go forward.
The key battle pits Republican demands for deep spending cuts against Democrats' insistence on tax hikes for the wealthiest Americans.
"We can and we should avoid 'the fiscal cliff' by acting now - before January 1st - to extend middle class tax cuts for 98 percent of the American people and allow the tax cuts to expire for those earning over $250,000 a year," Durbin said.
Republicans could block any bill that does not extend all tax cuts. But after Jan. 1, with all tax cuts expired, Democrats could draft a bill that cuts taxes only for those earning up to $250,000, cranking up pressure on Republicans to go along.
Durbin said decisions on Medicare and Medicaid should not be put off too long.
"Putting the discussions off indefinitely makes our choices harder, our success less likely and negative effects on current beneficiaries a near certainty," he said.