But the unity among Republicans — with only five out of 47 voting against it — served as an important sign that party leaders remain wedded to a deficit-reduction plan that is a loyalty test for many GOP voters but is widely unpopular, according to polls.
Wednesday’s vote underscored the pressure being exerted by the party’s tea party base to stick with the plan, sponsored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.), and the calculation by Republican officials that they have time before the 2012 election to neutralize any of the Democrats’ political advantages. Moreover, in the Senate, the GOP has some breathing room, with only 10 members up for reelection next year and just one considered vulnerable.
Still, signs of unease about Ryan’s approach remain within the party. Several GOP presidential contenders have steered clear of the Medicare provision, with both former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a presumed candidate, saying in recent days that they will soon release their own plans. Even some of the 40 senators who voted for it openly discussed their interest in finding alternatives.
“I don’t think there’s anybody in this room that would say it’s an article of faith,” said Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.).
Democrats, meanwhile, celebrated their victory in New York’s 26th Congressional District as a sign that Medicare could be a winning issue in next year’s election. But some in the party have begun to acknowledge that they must engage, to at least some degree, in talks about the future of the popular entitlement, with polls showing that the public wants both parties to find solutions to the country’s fiscal ills.
Hours before the Senate vote Wednesday, former president Bill Clinton urged Congress, including his fellow Democrats, not to “tippy-toe around” Medicare, saying the program “is part of a whole health-care system that has a toxic effect on inflation.” Speaking at a conference about fiscal challenges, Clinton warned Democrats to be wary of weighing the issue solely for political gain, adding: “We’ve got to deal with these things.”
Vice President Biden, leading bipartisan negotiations to devise a plan for cutting the deficit, said Tuesday night that “big-ticket items” such as entitlements must be addressed.
The Democrats, however, are continuing to bash Ryan’s approach and are not proposing major, new ideas of their own. Policy experts said most of the ideas being circulated by the party — including government-negotiated prices for medicine that older Americans buy — reprise long-held views that Republicans oppose.
House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said Medicare “needs to be on the table.” But he added that he would not risk a backlash by identifying concrete changes he would support, saying, “That is the same mistake that . . . Ryan made.”