By Molly K. Hooper and Russell Berman - 05/26/11 09:55 AM EDT
A day after a crushing defeat in a New York special election, House GOP lawmakers defended their vote to reform Medicare but grumbled that their leaders must do a better job of messaging.
“If we’ll just stay with our argument and do a better job developing it, we’ll be fine,” said Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), one of many Republicans blaming GOP candidate Jane Corwin’s loss on the presence of a Tea Party candidate who siphoned away votes in a three-way race.
Democrats credited Kathy Hochul’s victory to a flood of ads targeting Corwin for supporting the GOP budget authored by Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.), which in a decade would transform Medicare into a voucher program.
Feeling they have gained momentum from the race, Democrats promised Wednesday to keep up the pressure on the GOP by continuing their attack on Ryan’s blueprint, which only four House Republicans opposed on the floor.
Publicly, Republicans on Wednesday offered support for Ryan’s budget while echoing Cole’s argument that they needed to do a better job of fighting off Democratic attacks.
“I think we need to be stronger in marketing who we are and our message, and not just Medicare but in every aspect — with the jobs situation, with the economy, with national security. That’s what we need to do,” freshman Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) said.
West said he was not worried about losing elderly voters in his south Florida district, noting that he had been holding regular town-hall meetings since his election.
“When you continue to talk to people and keep them informed, then there are no surprises,” he said.
But behind the scenes, several sources reported grumbling.
One source familiar with the internal discussions over the Ryan budget plan described members as frustrated that their leadership failed to prepare them for the outrage they have heard from constituents in their districts over the Medicare changes.
“Members know that you don’t piss off senior citizens, and they know that this was handled badly, that there was no messaging, that Ryan’s not making his case and they are all looking down the road thinking, ‘Oh my God, it’s coming,’ ” the source said.
A separate GOP lawmaker, who faces a tough reelection race, told The Hill that there’s been talk of revisiting the Ryan Medicare plan. “How serious it is … don’t know,” the lawmaker said.
But a GOP official involved in the discussions told The Hill that the House Republican leadership absolutely cannot revisit the Ryan Medicare plan “or the Tea Party will kill them.”
Republicans who have criticized the Medicare reforms have themselves come under attack. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich’s (Ga.) presidential campaign nearly imploded after he described Ryan’s proposal as right-wing social engineering. Gingrich later apologized and on Wednesday defended the Ryan plan.
Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) voted against the Ryan budget on Wednesday after criticizing it earlier in the week. His criticism met with scorn from Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), who said Brown should be ashamed of himself.
Former House GOP policy chairman Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (Mich.) said that he’s heard of some bickering “at a higher level than the average member.” Rank-and-file lawmakers, he said, “just want to know what happened.”
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Texas), the GOP policy committee chairman, said Medicare likely played a role in the race, but insisted Republicans remain firmly behind the Ryan plan.
“We have a high level of enthusiasm for the budget, and we’ll continue to have it,” Hensarling said.
The GOP leadership official congratulated Democrats on the election. “They won, we lost,” he said. But he warned them against overreacting to the victory.
“I remember a three-way race in a Democrat district that we won in Hawaii that we didn’t keep too long,” Hensarling said, referring to a special-election victory by Rep. Charles Djou (R) in 2010. Djou lost his seat after six months.
A frustrated Ryan accused Democrats of distorting his plan.
“The Medicare takeaway from this is that Democrats are happy to shamelessly distort and demagogue the issue to try and scare seniors to win an election,” Ryan told reporters off the House floor.
“We have a year and a half for the truth to come out, and when it does, the American people are going to know they’ve been lied to. I think we’ll be doing very well. If you demagogue entitlement reform, you’re hastening the debt crisis. You’re bringing about Medicare’s collapse.”
Some Republicans rallied around Ryan’s message that the budget had been unfairly tarred.
“Paul Ryan is right: The Democrats are wrong to use scare tactics,” said Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.). “They’re scaring old people, and it’s disgusting.”
— Emily Cahn contributed to this article.