Democrats' strategy on Medicare: Let Ryan, Republicans step in it again

House Democrats have a simple strategy as GOP leaders prepare to unveil a 2013 budget expected to include Medicare cuts akin to those proposed last year: Bring it on.

"The strategy is to get out of their way and let them do it again," Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.) told reporters at the Democrats' annual Eastern Shore retreat.

"There is overwhelming rejection of the abolition of the Medicare guarantee," Andrews added, "and if they choose to identify themselves with it again, we're going to identify ourselves with Medicare."

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Behind Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), House Republicans last year passed a 2012 budget that made sharp cuts to Medicare benefits and privatized the program for future beneficiaries.

Under the Ryan plan, those younger than 55 today would not receive health coverage through Medicare when they turned 65, but would instead have the government subsidize their coverage through private insurance plans — a fundamental change from the single-payer, government-run system.

The Congressional Budget Office found that most seniors would pay more for their healthcare under the Ryan plan than they do under traditional Medicare.

Polls showed that the plan was wildly unpopular with voters, including many conservatives. Indeed, last May's special election of Rep. Kathy Hochul (N.Y.) — a Democrat in a traditionally Republican district — was attributed largely to her success linking her opponent to the GOP Medicare cuts.

Ryan last week announced that's he's eying the same types of Medicare changes in the budget he intends to propose this year. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) also said he backs the plan.

"We haven't written it yet, but we're not backing off on the kinds of reforms we've advocated," Ryan told reporters at the annual issues conference for House Republicans in Baltimore.

At the same time, Ryan has also partnered with a Democrat, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, on a new proposal that would let seniors choose between traditional Medicare and a subsidy to help pay for private insurance. That proposal, which the White House and other Democrats have criticized, suggests Ryan could take a slightly different approach with his budget.

Democrats are practically drooling at the opportunity to hammer Republicans once more on Medicare.

"It's definitely at their peril," Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) warned of the Ryan plan. "It's surprising to me that they would double-down on it, but it seems they are."

The Democrats sought to draw a sharp distinction between the GOP's Medicare cuts and the cuts included in their healthcare reform law of 2010. They note that most of the savings under their plan came from eliminating subsidies to private insurance companies under the Medicare Advantage program, freeing up money to expand benefits rather than rolling them back. Still, the Democrats' healthcare bill was also unpopular with voters, and many GOP candidates were successful hammering the law as a central campaign message. The history hasn't been forgotten by Democrats as they enter a high-stakes election year when they're eyeing a return to the House majority.

Schakowsky on Thursday said they plan to create "truth-squads" to counter the GOP attacks on Obama's healthcare bill — attacks they say have demonized the bill inaccurately.

"When people get the truth about President Obama's healthcare bill — that it will actually cost less and provide better benefits — they will support our position," said Schakowsky, who was proudly wearing a "Thanks Obamacare" button.

In his State of the Union Speech Tuesday, Obama amplified his past support for altering entitlement benefits, saying he's "prepared to make more reforms that rein in the long-term costs of Medicare and Medicaid."

Schakowsky warned Thursday, however, that most House Democrats won't support any plan that erodes Medicare benefits.

"That really isn't going to be the position that those of us in the House take," said Schakowsky. 

Andrews said Democrats are on the same page as Obama, even if they don't agree on every policy position. The much greater threat to traditional Medicare, he argued, is the Ryan budget.

"Our alternative is called Medicare," Andrews said. "We believe in it; we value it; we support it. If they [Republicans] want to prove yet again that they do not, let them do it."

Included among the speakers at the Democrats' conference Thursday were leaders from two liberal groups opposing entitlement cuts: the Alliance for Retired Americans and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.