GOP sticking together amid attacks on Medicare proposals

House Republicans have stayed united behind a budget proposal imposing major changes to Medicare after a two-week recess highlighted by attacks on the plan.

Polls show the public is worried about the proposal to replace Medicare with subsidies for private coverage, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates would raise costs for seniors.

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Democrats have been hammering that point throughout the spring recess, hoping to drive a wedge between Republicans.

So far, that hasn’t caused GOP support for the plan to unravel, though Republicans have consistently avoided discussing the Medicare proposal on its own, preferring to talk about it as one piece of a comprehensive deficit reduction effort.

Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) the author of the blueprint and Medicare reforms, has even suggested his proposal could be tweaked.

He told the Weekly Standard that criticism that his proposal’s subsidies for seniors are too low is a “very debatable, reasonable and negotiable point.” 

He also called possible GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich's proposal to offer seniors a choice of staying on traditional Medicare or opting for private coverage “a fine idea worth considering.”

The budget blueprint, which the House approved 235-193 just before the spring recess, does not have force of law, so any changes to Medicare would require separate legislation. That will take time, and allows the GOP to put off decisions on what the final reforms might really look like.

“You want to defer some of these decisions for as long as possible,” said a Republican lobbyist. “They'll want to hold off and let this settle down a little bit.”

Legislation changing Medicare would normally have to be crafted and voted on by the Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce committees, but no markup has yet been scheduled. Nor is Medicare reform on the list of bills the House is planning on taking up in the immediate future. These include legislation to ban federal funding for abortion, restart offshore drilling leases and repeal the healthcare reform law's funding for state insurance exchanges and school-based health centers. 

The lobbyist said committee leaders would likely have preferred that Ryan offer fewer specifics.

When the chairmen of the Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce panels “put something together it will be in concert with the leadership and the Caucus,” the lobbyist said. “It may not be as provocative as the Ryan proposal was.”

Democrats have made clear that they aim to tie Republicans to the budget’s Medicare proposal regardless of whether that section comes up as a stand-alone proposal. A spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) described the budget as “a vote you can’t take away.”

Already, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has targeted 42 House Democrats with radio ads and automated phone calls that accuse lawmakers of voting to “end Medicare.”

Throughout the recess, from Orlando to Arkansas, Republicans repeatedly faced tough audience questions about their Medicare proposal. Democrats have tried to portray that voter anger as being on par with the Tea Party outrage that almost derailed Democrats' healthcare reform law two years ago.

Ryan was booed at one of his town halls. But he told the Weekly Standard on Thursday that “the crowds have been overwhelmingly positive.”

“I've come away from these town halls encouraged,” Ryan said. “I've come away from these town halls impressed with how well people have versed themselves in budget problems and issues.”

Indeed, Republicans have so far seen very few defections.

Only four House Republicans voted against the Ryan budget, and of those only two cited its Medicare reforms. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) said the budget doesn't do enough cutting and Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) has remained silent.

The Ryan proposal has “too many unanswered questions with regard to Medicare reform,” Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) said in a statement after casting his vote.

“I simply won’t support any plan until I know for a fact that Montana’s seniors will be protected,” the health appropriations chairman said.

And Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) said he couldn't support a budget that proposes “dramatically restructuring the Medicare program in a way that forces future retirees to pay substantially more for their healthcare, and keeping ObamaCare's crippling Medicare cuts in place.”

In the Senate, the only Republican so far to come out against the Ryan Medicare proposal has been Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

“I don't happen to support Congressman Ryan's plan, but at least he had the courage to put forth a plan to significantly reduce the debt,” Collins said on WCSH 6, an NBC affiliate in Portland, Maine.

Still, Republicans have shown some signs that they won't stay wedded to Ryan's proposal if seniors seem to be turning against it in droves.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) raised eyebrows this week when he told ABC News that he's “not wedded to one single idea.”