In budget battle, GOP regroups on Medicare message

Congressional Republicans recognize that the $3.5 trillion budget proposal the GOP-led House is expected to adopt this week remains fraught with political peril, but they also believe they now know how to blunt Democratic attacks on its Medicare overhaul components and should be able to avoid the political pummeling they suffered as a result last year.

The document at the center of the firestorm is the 2013 federal budget blueprint from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the House Budget Committee chairman. Last year’s version, with its proposals to remake Medicare into a voucher program, became a significant liability for the GOP as Democrats used it to accuse Republicans of seeking to dismantle a coveted federal program.

Some of that fallout lingers. The risks are especially high for Republicans facing competitive races in swing and moderate districts in November, and the party hopes to use the lessons learned from last year’s scarring battle to turn the debate to its advantage.

“We’re going to give the country a choice. And we’re going to show the country here’s how you balance the budget, pay off the debt, grow the economy and stop all the cronyism in Washington, picking winners and losers,” Ryan said on “Fox News Sunday,” one of two morning news shows on which he appeared to make a forceful case in support of his plan.

The Democratic opposition will be vigorous, driven in part by the success of its message a year ago. The White House sent senior adviser David Plouffe to three talk shows, in part to counter Ryan’s message, hoping to capi­tal­ize on last year’s effort to portray the Ryan plan as a privatization of Medicare.

“It fails the test of balance and fairness and shared responsibility,” Plouffe said of the Ryan budget on ABC’s “This Week.” “It showers huge additional tax cuts on the wealthy that are paid for by veterans and seniors and the middle class.”

The GOP’s approach this year included a full briefing for the Republican presidential candidates before the budget’s release, resulting in a largely unified GOP front, even among the bitterly divided field.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney quickly embraced the plan, as did former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.).

Former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) offered generally positive reviews, passing up the opportunity to separate himself from Romney on the issue by essentially muting past complaints that Ryan’s reforms do not take effect quickly enough. Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) has opposed the plan.

Ryan also sought to quiet complaints from fellow House conservatives by agreeing to cut more deeply from agency budgets for fiscal 2013 than the spending caps agreed to in last summer’s debt-ceiling deal with President Obama and Hill Democrats. That has brought charges from the Democratic side of the aisle that the GOP is reneging on that contentious deal for the sake of party unity.

That decision could haunt Republicans in the form a new clash over spending with Senate Democrats at the height of the election season in September. But for now it means Republicans expect only a handful of defections when the GOP budget faces a key floor vote this week.

Most important, they have a new strategy to try to neutralize the Democrats’ Medicare assault, arguing that their plan is the only way to save the federal retiree program and is based on bipartisan ideas for change.

Under Ryan’s plan, the Medicare eligibility age would slowly rise to 67. Those who turn 65 after 2023 would receive government assistance buying a private health insurance plan, but the spending would be capped, meaning costs could be shifted to seniors as insurance costs rise.

This year’s proposal contains a small twist from last year’s: Seniors could opt to use their capped spending toward a traditional fee-for-service model.

Democrats charge that the proposal will dismantle the popular program, slashing Medicare payments to retirees and shifting costs to seniors.

But Republicans enter the debate armed with new polling from a conservative firm that surveyed 50 battleground House districts and shared the keys to winning with the House leadership.

First, they should label their effort “bipartisan” — no longer a stretch given that Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) is supporting the latest Ryan Medicare plan. About 46 percent of voters, the poll found, supported a plan to “fix Medicare,” as long as it provides choices and preserves the program.

Those key words have been echoed repeatedly by Republicans defending the plan in the past week.

Democrats remain convinced that the Ryan Medicare changes can be used to sink Republican congressional candidates across the country, such as when Democrat Kathy Hochul won a special election for a House seat last May in a deeply conservative New York district, largely on the Medicare issue.

And new analyses of the proposal offer ammunition for Democrats, highlighting the magnitude of cuts to the social safety network necessary to achieve the $5.3 trillion in savings over the next 10 years called for in Ryan’s plan.

“Folks, it’s simple math: Either you preserve Medicare and fix Social Security and draw down the deficit or you spend another trillion dollars on tax cuts for the wealthiest. You can’t do both of these things,” Vice President Biden said in Florida on Friday.

But while Democrats focus on their New York win, Republicans have zeroed in on a lower-profile special election held last September.

Just four months after the Democrats’ Medicare victory, Nevada Republican Mark Amodei framed his race around his desire to “reform” the federal retiree program and save it, instead of slashing it. He won by 22 percentage points.

Republicans have been encouraging all of their potentially vulnerable incumbents to study the Amodei race as a model of how to talk about Ryan’s plan as a difficult but responsible path.

“Nobody’s more aware of the dangers of discussing entitlements than me,” said Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.), whose coastal district is the fourth oldest in the nation. “But it’s the right thing to do.”

Rosalind Helderman is a political enterprise and investigations reporter for the Washington Post.
Paul Kane covers Congress and politics for the Washington Post.
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