The Democratic Party will begin a campaign on Wednesday to attack Republican lawmakers for pushing cuts to Medicare benefits during the latest round of failed federal deficit talks, a new turn in a drama that not long ago featured top Democrats expressing a willingness to tinker with the popular entitlement program.
The strategy underscores the full-circle nature of the policy fight that has gripped Washington for the past year, as early calls for bipartisan solutions have turned into trench warfare in the wake of last week’s collapse of the debt-reduction “supercommittee.”
GOP officials are girding for the Medicare attacks, which they concede come with a history of success for Democrats.
The offensive will begin Wednesday with a flurry of automated phone calls to voters in 30 Republican-held congressional districts, accusing the GOP of “forcing” a supercommittee failure because they wanted to protect tax breaks for the wealthy by cutting Medicare.
“The supercommittee failed because Republicans insisted on extending the Bush tax breaks for millionaires and refusing to include a jobs proposal – while ending the Medicare guarantee,” a recorded voice tells voters, according to a script released by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which sets party strategy for House races.
The caller then adds: “By rejecting a balanced approach, Republicans chose to protect the wealthiest one percent at the expense of seniors and the middle class.”
Such an attack probably would have been difficult had the supercommittee been able to reach an agreement involving cuts to Medicare and Social Security, because Democratic complicity in a deal might have forced a detente on entitlement politics.
The new Democratic effort illustrates why an agreement has been so elusive. Both sides are acutely aware of the political risks of compromise, while the supercommittee failure has allowed each party to retreat to familiar ground.
Some Republicans, for instance, showed a willingness to defy GOP doctrine and raise taxes to reach a deal, while many conservatives argued that the party was better off taking the fight into the 2012 election campaigns, painting Democrats as taxers and spenders.
Democrats may have had more to gain from a stalemate. The automatic cuts that will be triggered by the lack of a deal will largely spare safety-net programs and entitlements that are sacred to Democratic constituencies, and the lack of an agreement on tax policy means that the George W. Bush-era tax cuts could expire after 2012, which would delight many Democrats.
Party strategists say they received a political gift when GOP supercommittee negotiators offered to work from the budget blueprint designed by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) which passed the Republican-led House this year. That plan would change Medicare from the federal entitlement it has been for decades to a voucher program: Seniors who join Medicare in 2022 and beyond would receive subsidies to help pay for private insurance they would buy.
Democrats have long considered the Ryan proposal their best hope for reviving flagging support among seniors and independents, who surveys show strongly support retaining Medicare in its current form. The party devoted considerable resources last spring to attacking GOP lawmakers who backed the plan — airing radio ads, buying billboard space and orchestrating made-for-YouTube confrontations with surprised Republicans at town hall events.
Now the stymied talks gave those efforts new wind, Democrats said.
“The process unmasked Republicans,” said Rep. Steve Israel (N.Y.), chairman of the Democrats’ House campaign committee.
Israel sought to distinguish between the Medicare cuts Republicans proposed and the openness to change that top Democrats voiced, saying his party has “said we will negotiate to strengthen Medicare, improve Medicare and reform Medicare, but we will not negotiate the end of Medicare.”
He declined to say whether an agreement to cut entitlements might have hindered his political strategy, calling the notion “hypothetical.”
“It would have been preferable for the Republicans to strike a deal that would have reformed Medicare without reducing benefits,” Israel said. “Since they refused, I think that refusal creates a contrast that ultimately reminds voters that Democrats are a better deal than Republicans.”Republican officials say they plan to portray Democrats as Medicare hypocrites for slicing hundreds of billions of dollars from the Medicare Advantage program as part of President Obama’s health-care overhaul.
Talking points distributed by the National Republican Congressional Committee advise incumbents to turn the Medicare debate into a chance to remind voters of Obama’s health-care legislation. One “key point” notes that “Medicare is going bankrupt and Democrats are making it worse.” Party officials also urged members to hold events for seniors that coincide with Medicare’s open enrollment, which ends Dec. 7.
One vulnerable Republican, Rep. Charles Bass (N.H.), apparently took the advice, holding a pair of Medicare forums in his district on Monday featuring local and federal agency representatives to advise seniors on their options.Republicans say they can turn Medicare into at least a draw, if not a win.
Bass had been confronted at town hall meetings in April about his vote for the Ryan plan – part of Democrats’ effort to target GOP lawmakers on the issue. At the time, Bass vowed that he would develop a strategy to respond to anxious seniors and assure them that he supported preserving Medicare.
Republican Party officials say they can at least turn the Medicare fight into a draw. They point to a September special election victory in a conservative Nevada district as a case study. A PowerPoint presentation prepared by the GOP’s House campaign committee cited several assumptions that strategists worked from in that Nevada campaign.
The assumptions included that voters “are inclined to believe Republicans do not like Medicare,” that Medicare attacks, “if not responded to, will hurt,” and that “Republicans have a strong message that’s capable of fighting Medicare to a tie.”
Surveys show the risk for Republicans if they cannot repel the Democrats attacks – particularly in Florida, Michigan and Colorado where there are high concentrations of seniors.
An Washington Post-Bloomberg poll in early October found that 82 percent of Americans opposed reducing Medicare benefits as a way to help lower the deficit – including eight in 10 independents.
Polling analyst Peyton M. Craighill contributed to this report.