Republican rift widens on Medicare

A deep rift is opening wider and wider in the Republican Party over controversial proposals to cut Medicare.

Senate Republicans have decided to avoid jeopardizing their chances of capturing the upper chamber in next year’s elections and will not echo the House GOP’s call for a major overhaul of the popular health entitlement for seniors.

The Senate Republican decision to split from their colleagues in the lower chamber comes after a month during which Democrats, led by President Obama, have excoriated House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) spending blueprint. 

Ryan’s Medicare plan, supported by all but four House Republicans, has been panned by Democrats as a voucher program that “would end Medicare as we know it.”

Six months after their historic triumphs in the 2010 elections, Republicans are now treading more carefully on cutting Medicare.

Some House Republicans got an earful during the April recess over the Ryan plan, and the negative feedback now has GOP leaders in a bind.

While sticking by the policies in the Ryan proposal, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and his lieutenants have indicated they won’t seek to pass the specific Medicare provisions through the House because they have little chance of being enacted by Obama and the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Yet House Republicans have moved a slew of bills through the lower chamber that attracted veto threats, most notably a repeal of Obama’s healthcare reform law.

The Medicare split is the first indication of major differences on the budget between Republicans in the House and Senate during the 112th Congress. There was no daylight between Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) during the fiscal 2011 spending battle, which bolstered GOP leverage in the government shutdown debate.

The budget plan that will be introduced Tuesday by conservative Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), a former House member, is expected to become the leading Senate GOP alternative. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the ranking member on the Budget Committee, has suggested he will not offer his own proposal.

Without the cover of Toomey’s plan, many Senate Republicans would feel forced to vote for Ryan’s plan to fend off criticism from the right. Senate Democratic leadership aides say they will seek a vote on Ryan’s plan later this month in a roll call that will trigger at least a few GOP defections.

“I’d be surprised if they want to put their members on the record as supporting that budget,” a Senate Democratic leadership aide said of Senate GOP leaders. “It’s a classic bit of overreaching by the House Republicans, where they wildly misinterpreted what the House wants.”

Senate Republicans need to pick up four seats to win control of the Senate (three if Obama loses) and the map favors them in 2012 as Democrats are defending 23 seats and the GOP only 10. But Republicans fear their political momentum could be reversed by a misstep on Medicare.

GOP strategists have watched with alarm as Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, has made a surprising run in the special election for New York’s open 26th district, a seat Republicans were expected to win easily.

A new Daily Kos/SEIU poll showed Hochul leading her Republican opponent by four points. Hochul’s campaign has been helped by a Tea Party candidate who previously ran as a Democrat, effectively splitting the GOP vote.

A senior Senate Republican strategist said the House plan is an “honest stab” at trying to extend the program’s solvency but the politics of the moment are all wrong.

“The real problem is the Democrats are out there beating the crap out of Republicans because they’re saying we’re privatizing Medicare,” said the GOP strategist. “It’s a problem because Republicans haven’t messaged it well.”

Former Republican Sen. David Durenberger of Minnesota, an expert on health policy, said Republicans have not done a good job of selling Ryan’s budget plan.

“What is the tradeoff for making it at least appear that you’re going to get rid of the public insurance program and substitute a tax subsidy patients can no longer control, nor can their doctors or anybody else? Where they’re coming up short is explaining what’s the tradeoff,” Durenberger said.

He said Republicans have not convinced seniors and other voters that the benefits of the Ryan plan, such as an economy less encumbered by deficit concerns, are worth risking change.

The rift among Republicans on Medicare reform became more apparent last week when House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) said he would not move Ryan’s proposal for establishing a premium support system through his panel.

It also appears that Republicans will not demand major Medicare concessions as part of the debt-ceiling negotiations.

“There are still too many unanswered questions with regard to Medicare reform, and I simply won’t support any plan until I know for a fact that Montana’s seniors will be protected,” Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) said of Ryan’s plan last month.

Rehberg, who was one of only four House Republicans to vote against the proposal, will run against Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) next year.

Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) was the first Senate Republican to voice her opposition to Ryan’s plan last month.

Ryan, however, insists that tough choices are necessary to save the program from bankruptcy.

His spokesman disputed the arguments of political strategists that supporting Medicare reform could sink the party’s chances of capturing the Senate next year.

“That’s an argument being made by those more concerned about the next election….,” said Ryan spokesman Conor Sweeney. “It’s the only plan put forward that saves and strengthens Medicare.”

Michael Brumas, a spokesman for McConnell, criticized Senate Democrats for not offering their own proposals.

“Republicans have produced a number of proposals for strengthening Medicare, reducing spending and dealing with the debt crisis, while Democrats in the Senate have yet to put forth a budget,” he said. “The real question is, Will Senate Democrats have their own plan, or will they rely on the president’s budget that raises taxes and adds $9.5 trillion to the debt over 10 years?” 

Alice Rivlin, who served as White House budget director under former President Clinton, said that some version of a premium support system, such as Ryan proposed, could extend Medicare’s solvency.

“I still think premium support could be the basis for a bipartisan reform of Medicare, but it would have to be in a different form than Ryan proposed it,” she told The Hill.

 “I’m not ready to declare premium support dead. But in the form in which Ryan put it out, he turned everybody off,” she said.

Durenberger agrees that the partisan politics surrounding Ryan’s budget plan will likely delay Medicare reform until 2013 or later.