GOP’s big Medicare gamble

Republicans on Capitol Hill may be in the process of learning a hard lesson: Meddling with Medicare, whatever the nation’s fiscal circumstances, just isn’t popular.

They are feeling the heat now because of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) controversial plan to turn Medicare into a type of voucher system. Presented as a serious attempt to fix the program’s projected shortfalls, the proposal instead appears to have turned the political tide back toward the congressional Democrats, who were on the ropes after last November’s midterms.

Fifty-three percent of voters recently surveyed by The Hill said they would not accept any reduction in Medicare benefits even if doing so would help get the national debt and federal deficits under control. 

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Medicare also appears to have boosted Democratic nominee Kathy Hochul’s campaign in the special election in New York’s 26th District. Recent polls show her competitive or slightly ahead of Republican nominee Jane Corwin, although a Tea Party candidate complicates the handicapping of that race.

“I think the Ryan budget has given us the impetus,” Hochul told MSNBC last week. She added that, in conversations with voters in the upstate district, conservatives and liberals alike “were talking about two things: jobs and protecting Medicare. And the Republicans in Washington appear to be tone-deaf to that.”

The GOP on Capitol Hill may be belatedly getting the message, however.

Last month, it seemed like House Republicans were intent upon charging ahead with the Ryan proposal. Despite Democratic attacks — including one from the president himself — only four Republicans defected when the measure came to a vote.

Republicans suffered through some testy town halls during the April recess — and the party leadership appears to have retreated on the issue ever since.

House leaders do not plan to put Ryan’s blueprint into authorization legislation. Senate Republicans, meanwhile, have introduced a deficit-cutting bill that calls for more Medicare spending than Obama has embraced.

Republicans accuse Democrats of trying to scare seniors by attacking their Medicare plan, but political analysts note the GOP was doing the same thing to Democrats last year. The GOP seized on $500 billion in Medicare cuts in President Obama’s push for healthcare reform to attack Democrats. The criticism nearly torpedoed the entire measure, and helped Republicans win the House last fall.

The success of the attacks, which have a history that goes back well before the Obama healthcare law, creates legitimate questions over whether it’s possible for the political system to agree to changes to Medicare despite the budgetary implications of doing nothing.

“When the other side says ‘Cut Medicare spending,’ Republicans and Democrats say, ‘That’s unconscionable,’” said Joe Antos, a former health adviser at the Congressional Budget Office now at the American Enterprise Institute.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), a longtime member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said some on Capitol Hill believe the “4th of never” is an ideal time to revamp the popular entitlement program.

“I think it’s always been the third rail,” said Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.).

And while most current members were not serving then, many veteran lawmakers remember the miscalculation Congress made in 1988 when it enacted a law to provide catastrophic illness and prescription drug benefits, partly by requiring the wealthiest seniors to pay more. 

In the summer of 1989, then-Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.), was confronted and chased down a Chicago street by angry seniors. The law was soon repealed.

Even more infamously, five years later, Hillary Clinton’s healthcare bill crashed soon after takeoff partly due to concerns over how it would affect senior citizens.

These failures are all the more frustrating for many policy-makers because there is, in fact, broad agreement on the need for reform.

The evidence is growing that Medicare will go broke unless the body politic takes action. In their annual report released on Friday, the program’s trustees said Medicare will run out of money five years earlier than previously estimated because of the ailing economy.

“Projected long-run program costs for both Medicare and Social Security are not sustainable under currently scheduled financing,” the trustees wrote, “and will require legislative corrections if disruptive consequences for beneficiaries and taxpayers are to be avoided.”

Republicans are barely able to contain their dismay at what they perceive as Democratic politicking on the issue.

“Where is the criticism of Democrats for not even being willing to look at entitlements and do something to try and bring those under control?” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) asked plaintively on MSNBC last week. “Medicare is $38 trillion in unfunded liability.”

In a sign of increasing panic, Dick Morris, a columnist for The Hill, recently wrote GOP leaders should allow their members a new vote to repudiate their support for the Ryan Medicare reforms.

“House freshmen, if they wish to become sophomores, must demand that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) set a vote that permits them to undo their support for the Medicare portion of the Ryan budget,” wrote Morris.

Yet, for all the challenges, it is possible to make changes to Medicare and survive.

Medicare was significantly overhauled on a bipartisan basis in 1997, during former President Bill Clinton’s second term. Clinton, working with a Republican Congress, passed the Balanced Budget Act, which included a slew of reforms that bolstered Medicare’s solvency.

Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), a longtime member of the House Ways and Means Committee with jurisdiction over Medicare, predicts Medicare reforms will eventually pass.

Pressed on when that will happen, McDermott responded, with a smile, “Democracy reacts when the people speak.”