Medicare fight hits House, Senate races

The battle over Social Security and Medicare has been resurrected in House and Senate races across the country, with candidates and their allies stretching the truth as they squabble with opponents about who would inflict the most damage on the nation's seniors.

The scrap has worked its way into candidate debates, mailers and television ads — and prompted one senator's unsuccessful quest to have an attack ad pulled off the air.

For both parties, the messaging in congressional races echoes that in the presidential race, where Republicans are hammering President Obama over the healthcare reform law he pushed through Congress, and Democrats are blasting Mitt Romney over his support for the budget proposal drafted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), which restructures Medicare.

In several races, Democrats are up in arms over GOP ads accusing their candidates — by way of their votes for healthcare reform — of robbing Medicare of $500 billion. Although the Affordable Care Act did reduce the projected growth in Medicare costs by $500 billion over 10 years, overall Medicare spending will actually increase. The legislation’s goal was to expand healthcare access to more Americans.

Republicans who have used the claim on the stump on in their ads have earned rebukes from fact-checking groups such as PolitiFact and

In Arizona, where both national parties are heavily invested in a June special election to replace former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), Republican Jesse Kelly and the National Republican Congressional Committee have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars attacking Democrat Ron Barber over the cut. Barber wasn’t in Congress when Democrats passed the healthcare law, but Giffords, his former boss, was.

“I would never vote for a cut to Medicare benefits,” Barber told The Hill, adding that Kelly is trying to have it both ways. “People need to see the contrast between myself and my opponent, who has made some very disparaging remarks about these programs. He’s called them both Ponzi schemes, and said they ought to be eliminated and privatized.”

After three years of saying that Social Security and Medicare must be phased out, Kelly updated his campaign website in early May to say the programs must be protected, The Hill reported. Democrats were incredulous, claiming Kelly was attempting to whitewash his own record while simultaneously deceiving voters about what Barber stands for.

Even more perplexing to Democrats was the fact that the Ryan budget, which almost all House Republicans voted in March to support, preserves the $500 billion reduction to Medicare funding that the GOP has been railing against.

Kelly spokesman John Ellinwood said Kelly believes the path to solvent entitlement programs is through dynamic economic growth that would dramatically increase revenues to the federal government.

“He has not endorsed the Ryan budget,” Ellinwood said. “He supports growing the economy using American energy so we can fully honor the commitments that have been made to seniors.”

Democrats have also played fast and loose with the truth on entitlements and programs for seniors. Democratic candidates have continued to hit their GOP opponents over the Ryan budget by claiming that Republicans set out to end Medicare. That contention was deemed the “Lie of the Year” in 2011 by the nonpartisan fact-checking site PolitiFact.

Ryan’s 2012 budget, like the one he introduced the year before, makes substantial changes to Medicare. But the new budget preserves the option for seniors to keep their current plan if they choose, blunting Democratic claims that the GOP is eliminating the program in its current form.

In Ohio, Rep. Jim Renacci (R) accused Rep. Betty Sutton (D), his opponent in a redistricting-induced member-member matchup, of having “gutted Medicare by $500 billion,” and PolitiFact Ohio rated his claim “mostly false.” But Sutton got her own rebuke from PolitiFact — a “false” rating — for claiming that Renacci had voted repeatedly to end Medicare.

And in New York, Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle (R-N.Y.) brought up the $500 billion cut in April to counter Democratic complaints about the Ryan budget.

"Those cuts, along with the creation of the [Independent Payment Advisory Board], are going to significantly impact the coverage and the care seniors are able to get,” Buerkle said, according to the Auburn Citizen.

Buerkle voted for the Ryan budget in March — along with the $500 billion cut she criticized Democrats for passing.

The $500 billion cut has also popped up in a key Senate race in Florida, where Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is facing serious opposition in his reelection bid.

In mid-May, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce launched a major ad buy in Florida knocking Nelson for supporting healthcare reform and claiming, among other things, that “seniors will see $500 billion in Medicare cuts to fund Obamacare.” PolitiFact Florida deemed the ad “mostly false.”

Nelson, through an attorney, asked Florida television stations to refuse to air the ad, but the ads aired anyway.

“It was distorting his official Senate record and asking folks to call his office. He believes the media has a public duty not to spread false and misleading information,” said Nelson spokesman Christian Robinson.

He added that another conservative group, the 60 Plus Association, had aired a similar ad weeks earlier.

“Nelson's broader point is that it shouldn't be OK when undisclosed corporate dollars buy $2 million worth of TV ads that willfully spread false and misleading claims about someone, or something,” said Robinson.