By Sam Baker - 05/25/11 05:32 PM EDT
Democratic leaders say they'll be able to "play offense" in competitive 2012 races after concerns over Medicare helped propel the party to victory in Tuesday's special election in New York.
Democrats are defending 13 more Senate seats next year than Republicans, but they said Wednesday that they'll continue to benefit from House Republicans' plan to convert Medicare into a sort of voucher program.
Earlier in the week, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Medicare will be a "defining issue" in the 2012 cycle.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the "people of America" roundly rejected Republicans' Medicare proposal when voters in New York's 26th district, historically a Republican stronghold, elected Democrat Kathy Hochul to fill former Rep. Chris Lee's seat.
Reid said Republicans should abandon the Medicare proposal. It has not been proposed in legislation separate from the House-passed budget. But party leaders have supported it publicly and presidential candidate Newt Gingrich quickly backtracked after criticizing the proposal.
Reid did not address questions about the possibility that Democrats might agree to alternative Medicare cuts as part of the deficit talks being led by Vice President Biden.
Although House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) raised that possibility Tuesday, Reid said he didn't know what was going on in those talks and emphasized that Democrats "strengthened" Medicare in the healthcare reform law.
The law squeezed significant savings out of the program and, according to the Medicare trustees, extended its life by seven years. But the fund that pays for Medicare's hospital benefits is still expected to become insolvent by 2024.