House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), pauses as he speaks to reporters following a weekly House GOP strategy session, May 8 at the Capitol in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.) is exasperated as she concludes her opening remarks and reaches for a piece of paper on the podium.

“I don’t know who was handing out this literature,” she says, “but I think we’ve got to talk about this a little bit.”

The issue in question is the budget proposal issued by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and what it does to Medicare in particular. More than a year after the proposal’s initial release, Republican candidates continue to find themselves on the defensive about what the plan will actually do, and Democrats continue to make claims about the dire consequences if it were to become law.

In its drive to tame entitlement spending and reduce the federal debt, the Ryan plan has been embraced by the GOP establishment as an article of faith, and it is likely to be a key issue in this fall’s congressional elections.

Buerkle was meeting with voters in this central New York town while, outside, liberal activists were distributing flyers that accused her of voting to cut funding to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, “to give more tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires.”

That’s not true, Buerkle told the standing room-only crowd.

“What’s proposed, and I say that — proposed, not the law — is that those who are 54 and younger would have a different Medicare plan,” she said. “It would look different than it looks now. But for those who are 55 years and above, Medicare remains the same. I again go back to this – there are no cuts for those who are on Medicare.”

‘It’s unfair’

Buerkle urged the mostly older voters in the audience not to fear the GOP plan, especially, she said, because the Democratic-controlled Senate will never pass it. Instead, she urged her constituents to be afraid of President Obama’s health-care law, which she called an “imminent threat” and “our biggest challenge,” because it would cut Medicare funding, slash money given to local hospitals and allow unelected government officials to make health-care decisions.

In an interview after the meeting, Buerkle said that one of the most difficult parts of her job “is trying to undo the mistruths and lack of facts” that opponents use against her. “It’s unfair. And it’s not accurate.”

Ryan’s plan would cut domestic programs and lower tax rates for individuals and businesses and eventually raise the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67. If enacted, the Ryan plan would one day allow seniors to purchase private health-insurance plans or continue to take part in the current program.

Democrats hope to retake the House this year by accusing GOP lawmakers of supporting Ryan’s plan to “end Medicare as we know it.” Running in a district that skews older and gives a slight enrollment edge to Democrats, Buerkle can’t afford to let the accusations stick.

Her opponent, former House member Dan Maffei (D), who lost to her in 2010, raised more than $307,000 in the first quarter of the year, topping Buerkle’s haul. He did it in part by attacking her support for Ryan’s budget.

Impact on student loans

A few hours away at the University of Rochester, Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.) used a meeting with college students to blast Ryan’s idea of cutting $200 million in Pell grants and for not initially supporting an extension of lower student loan interest rates.

“There are a lot of young people in my district whose only shot at a future is to get a college education,” Hochul said in an interview. “The Ryan budget is going to hurt people in my district.”

Hochul, who won a closely watched special election last year, also faces a tough reelection fight in a western New York district that slightly favors Republicans. The GOP will pick her opponent in a primary next month.

It’s only early May, but Buerkle and Hochul are campaigning as if Election Day were next week. Hochul held three events on a recent Friday and Buerkle held nine. Both face difficult choices very familiar to vulnerable incumbents this year.

Hours after attending her town hall meeting in Cicero, Buerkle attended a banquet honoring a local Meals on Wheels program. She supports the Republican budget and she supports the local Meals on Wheels program, but the program would lose some federal funding — if the GOP plan ever passes.

Hochul opposes the Ryan budget, but she was one of 13 Democrats to vote for a GOP bill that would pay for extending lower college student loan interest rates for another year by cutting $6 billion from a preventive health fund — an idea opposed by the White House.

Despite that vote, Hochul said she will campaign hard against the Ryan spending proposals, because business owners and farmers in her district “are not buying it that Paul Ryan has dressed things up a little differently this year on Medicare.”