GOP lawmakers restate commitment to Medicare overhaul

May 6, 2011

Senior Republicans said Friday that they are committed to a controversial overhaul of Medicare and will continue to support it as part of their deficit-reduction plan despite strong White House opposition.

The late-afternoon proclamation came at the end of a confusing week in which several GOP leaders publicly acknowledged that the most ambitious aspects of the plan would never be enacted, creating the impression they were distancing themselves from the politically unpopular proposal less than three weeks after pushing rank-and-file Republicans to vote for it.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and four other leading Republicans said they remained committed to transforming Medicare into a program that would have seniors use federal funds to purchase insurance on the private market. And they said the proposal remains a part of the ongoing talks on raising the federal debt limit.

“This has been and remains the Republican position. We are committed to our budget and to making the reforms necessary to grow our economy and create jobs, preserve and strengthen Medicare, and put our nation on a path to pay down the debt,” Boehner, Cantor and the four other Republicans said in a joint statement.

The announcement was meant to shore up junior lawmakers who had supported the plan, defended it to nervous constituents back home in their districts last month, then returned this week to hear Republican leaders publicly doubting the likelihood of it becoming law. More than a half dozen senior GOP aides said that the mixed signals on the Medicare plan were not a concerted effort to back away from the proposal, but instead a muddled message delivered by a new and still evolving leadership team that has its own internal rivalries.

It’s unclear whether the public wavering will result in a broad revolt among Republicans. Some top aides suggested that the leadership had to at least fight for the Medicare plan in the debt talks, rather than preemptively give up the issue. But others said junior lawmakers would have weeks to consider the matter in small listening sessions with senior lawmakers. Some political strategists have privately advised that the issue be dropped now because of the potential fallout GOP incumbents could face in 2012.

The confusion began Wednesday with separate media appearances by Cantor and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the Budget Committee and the author of the budget plan that includes the Medicare provision. Both senior Republicans said negotiations for legislation to raise the debt limit beyond its current ceiling of about $14.3 trillion would not likely include Ryan’s sweeping Medicare overhaul. They suggested the talks would focus on issues of “commonality,” such as trimming other mandatory spending programs such as agriculture subsidies, and leaving Medicare for a future debate.

By Friday some junior Republicans were demanding that tough decisions on the size and scope of costly government entitlement programs happen now, not later. “We have unsustainable budget deficits that threaten a federal bankruptcy . . . we don’t have the luxury of being choosy about how to solve the problem,” Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) said Friday in an interview. “Almost every politician in Washington knows that. What we lack are enough elected officials with the courage to attack it head on.”

Brooks is one of the 87 GOP freshmen elected last November, many of whom have stated their opposition to raising the debt ceiling despite dire warnings that federal defaults on loans would send global financial markets into turmoil.

More clarity on the Republican demands for increasing the debt limit could come in a speech by Boehner on Monday before the Economic Club of New York in midtown Manhattan.

Both Democratic and Republican officials said Friday that the debt ceiling negotiations, scheduled to resume Tuesday with Vice President Biden, are focusing on the less controversial issue of finding budget reforms that could reduce annual deficits. Ryan’s plan includes more than $700 billion in reductions, over a 10-year estimate, from mandatory spending programs outside of Medicare and Medicaid.

The most controversial issues — Ryan’s Medicare plan and Democratic demands to increase taxes on the wealthy and end some corporate subsidies — are “hovering” over the negotiating table, officials said. Eventually those issues would be brought into the final throes of the negotiations, but the most likely outcome could be scratching out some Medicare savings, not the changes envisioned by Ryan.

Polling suggests that Medicare, one of the most cherished government programs, is widely popular among U.S. voters. Seventy percent of voters oppose efforts to make changes to it, even after being told that Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and defense spending comprised more than 60 percent of the federal budget, according to a Quinnipiac University national poll released this week.

Staff writer Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.

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