NY-26 shifts Democratic playbook as party hardens line on Medicare reform

Democrats have hardened their stance on Medicare since the program helped propel them to an upset victory in a New York special election.

Party leaders suggested as recently as last month they were open to changes in the entitlement program. Now the leadership, particularly in the Senate, say they won’t accept any Medicare benefit cuts — even policies that would stop far short of the dramatic overhaul proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and included in the House GOP budget resolution.But in the early days of Democrats’ attacks on the Ryan budget — before their win in the May 24 New York race — leaders said Medicare would be, in some form, “on the table” during negotiations over raising the U.S. debt ceiling.

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Vice President Biden said last month that Medicare would be up for discussion in the bipartisan deficit talks he’s leading. Around the same time, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he believed “there are other things we can do related to Medicare,” short of Ryan’s proposal to convert the program into a system with subsidies for private insurers.

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a May 16 television interview that “Medicare is on the table.” Pelosi walked back those comments a few days later, telling The Plum Line blog that she wouldn’t accept benefit cuts.

Democrats need 24 seats to win back control of the House next year. And Republicans (if President Obama wins reelection) need only four seats to win control of the Senate.

Medicare proved a winning issue in the New York special election, giving the party a campaign theme for next year’s election. The party hammered Republican nominee Jane Corwin for her support of Ryan’s budget plan and its proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher-like system for those under the age of 55. She lost to Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-N.Y.) by four points in a Republican-leaning district.

Almost immediately after the race was called for Hochul, Democrat after Democrat put out statements crediting Hochul’s win to the Republicans’ plan “to end Medicare.”

Polling seems to support the Democrats’ strategy.

A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll out last week found that 58 percent of the public opposes the Republican plan on Medicare, while 35 percent say they support it.

And a poll conducted for The Hill before the New York election found voters didn’t want their existing or future Medicare benefits cut, even if it would help reduce the national debt.

Fifty-three percent of likely voters said they would not accept the idea of reduced benefits, while 33 percent said they would and 14 percent were unsure, the poll found.

Senate Democrats, who hold briefings with reporters nearly every week to hammer home their attack on the Ryan budget, have been shifting their focus lately, from acknowledging a need for reform of the entitlement program to a staunch defense of Medicare.

“Our message is simply: Take Medicare off the table,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said last week. 

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) also made clear his stance on benefit cuts, telling reporters Monday that a deal on the debt ceiling is “impossible” if Medicare cuts are included. When asked what kind of savings he might support within Medicare, Schumer referenced policies like price negotiations for prescription drugs — a longstanding liberal priority that drug companies strongly oppose and for which Democrats couldn’t muster enough support during the healthcare reform debate.

“Everyone knows that the surest way to destroy Medicare is to pretend like it doesn’t need to be fixed, which is why nearly every Democrat that matters has made clear that Medicare is on the table,” a senior Republican aide told The Hill. “But Democrats are in a tough spot. And they’re trying to use Medicare to provide a temporary solution to a much larger political problem they’re facing.”

Aides to Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Democrats’ position has remained consistent — they’re firmly against the Ryan budget and firmly in favor of preserving Medicare.

But Schumer has also promised that Medicare will be a “defining” issue in the 2012 cycle. And the shift away from general talk about an agreement, and toward harder-line rhetoric opposing any benefit cuts, has accelerated since attacks on Ryan’s Medicare plan helped the party win the New York special election.

Democrats are “caught between the knowledge that — without reform — Medicare faces bankruptcy and steep benefit cuts, and the temptation to demagogue it for partisan gain,” a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said.