Washington (CNN) - The nation's leading advocacy group for senior citizens on Wednesday endorsed the spending cuts that the Senate health care bill proposes for the government-run Medicare health program for seniors.
In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, who is leading the effort to pass the Democratic bill, the AARP says the measure "does not reduce any guaranteed Medicare benefits" while it makes needed reforms to the program that is predicted to become insolvent within a decade.
The letter, signed by AARP Chief Executive Officer Addison Barry Rand, calls for the Senate to reject an amendment by Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona that would effectively kill the health care bill by sending it back to committee to remove all provisions that reduce Medicare spending.
In debate on his amendment this week, McCain has criticized the AARP for backing the health care bill, which he claimed would harm senior citizens by reducing Medicare benefits.
Republicans unanimously oppose the Senate health care bill so far, and the first three days of debate have been slowed by procedural maneuvering and drawn-out rhetoric. Several amendments have been proposed, including McCain's, but no votes have occurred due to what Democrats complain are Republican stall tactics.
"Unless the Republican leadership comes forward with a reasonable approach to these amendments, I think our patience is wearing thin," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat in the chamber. "They don't want to call theseamendments for votes and we're just not going to sit here forever and see this bill go down."
Republicans denied they are purposely delaying action on the bill, but said they won't agree to end debate on individual amendments until they've had ample time to consider them.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, objecting to a voting schedule offered Tuesday by Democrats, said there were "a number of people that want to speak" about the McCain amendment before a vote.
One senior Republican senator, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, circulated a memo to his colleagues Wednesday detailing "the tools we have under Senate rules to insist on a full, complete and fully informed debate" on health care.
Gregg's memo spelled out more than a dozen "minority party rights," including insisting on a quorum of 51 senators to conduct legislative business and requiring the text of all amendments to be read aloud in the Senate chamber.
If the two sides can't reach agreement on the length of debate for amendments and when votes will be held, Democrats could use several floor procedures to accelerate the debate. Each procedure, however, contains potential pitfalls that make Democrats reluctant to employ them.
For example, Democrats could try to cut off debate on each amendment by filing cloture motions. However, cloture motions take days to play out, making the procedure impractical for speeding up debate.
Another tactic would be trying to table amendments, which would prevent their further consideration. The risk is that if a tabling motion fails, the underlying amendment is automatically considered approved. Therefore, controversial amendments could be adopted through the simple majority vote to kill a tabling motion, rather than the 60 votes needed to pass the actual
amendment in the 100-member chamber.
At a closed meeting on the subject Wednesday, Senate Democrats vowed to work weekends and even Christmas Day, if necessary, to pass the bill by the end of the year, which is their stated goal.
In floor debate so far, Republicans have adopted the unusual position of defending the Medicare program they have traditionally opposed. Led by McCain and McConnell, Republican speakers have insisted the more than $400 billion in proposed Medicare spending cuts over 10 years would reduce benefits for senior citizens.
Democrats responded that the Republicans are spreading misinformation as a scare tactic, and insist that the reduced Medicare spending would come from eliminating waste and fraud in the popular program to ensure its long-term
The AARP letter Wednesday backed the Democratic position.
"With respect to Medicare, AARP supports policies to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse - and to improve quality, value and sustainability of the program for current and future beneficiaries," the letter said.
It noted the Medicare spending cuts in the Senate bill focus on "provider reimbursement reforms" - meaning reductions in how much government money gets paid to hospitals, doctors and other health care providers - rather than benefits for Medicare recipients.
On Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, one of the architects of the bill, noted the Medicare spending cuts were much less than the $2 trillion in 10 years that health care industry officials have said the Medicare
program could shed.
The 2,074-page Senate bill would provide health insurance to an additional 31 million people at a cost of almost $850 billion.
Democrats have framed the debate that began Monday as historic and said the bill would provide vital health insurance for almost all Americans, hold down spiraling costs that threaten the U.S. economy and instill needed reforms to ensure the long-term solvency of Medicare.
Republicans countered that the bill is too big, too expensive and would cause more harm than good.
The House has passed its version of a health care bill, and if the Senate eventually passes a bill, the two measures would be merged by a congressional conference committee. Both chambers then would have to approve the revised bill before it could go to President Barack Obama's desk.
Obama has made health care his top domestic priority for 2009, and is pushing for Congress to pass a final bill this year.
–CNN's Tom Cohen contributed to this story.