WASHINGTON — The Senate's top Republican said Friday that lawmakers should not fear voter backlash for trying to pluck savings from Medicare as part of a debt-reduction effort because it will take a bipartisan accord to tackle the popular program.

The remarks by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., were noteworthy because they came three days after a Democrat won a special House election in a heavily Republican district in upstate New York after accusing the GOP of wanting to kill Medicare.

Many Democrats have made clear that they intend to stick with that theme when they try to recapture the House and defend their slim Senate majority in next year's elections.

McConnell told reporters that he believes Washington will agree to "something significant" to curb the giant health care program for the elderly well before the 2012 election. He said trimming huge benefit programs like Medicare is the only way to find the savings needed to make a serious dent in the government's debt, a point on which budget experts on both sides concur.

"And the American people can decide whether they will want to punish both sides for having done that because it will take both sides to do it," he said.

He added, "I don't think either side will have to worry about political fallout next year."

McConnell also reiterated his view that Medicare savings will have to be part of any deal between President Barack Obama and Congress to reduce the nation's huge and growing $14.3 trillion debt.

"Frankly if it were up to me, we'd be discussing Social Security as well," he said, mentioning another huge program for the elderly that politicians have long avoided discussing as a source of budget savings.

Republicans have demanded that as a price for their support for raising the government's debt limit, there must be an agreement to cut federal spending. Democrats have acknowledged that such savings will have to be part of a debt limit agreement, which the Obama administration says must be completed by early August.

McConnell wouldn't specify how he would change Medicare or how much savings he wants from the program.