Medicare: Republicans voice resolve as they prepare to face constituents

House Republicans, heading home for a recess days after a Democrat won a special election in New York, say they're ready to explain their stance on Medicare reform to voters.

Harry Hamburg/AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, accompanied by, from left, Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, and Rep. Fred Upton (R) of Mich., gestures during his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Thursday, May 26.

House Republicans are sharpening their message – but not backing down – after a surprise drubbing in a New York special election in which the Democratic victor targeted their plans to overhaul Medicare.

One reason the party is not running scared is that 2012 elections are more than a year away. Moreover, the 87-member GOP freshmen class campaigned on making bold, tough choices to get the nation’s fiscal house in order. Taking hits was to be expected, GOP lawmakers said in interviews after Tuesday’s election in New York’s 26th congressional district.

“Medicare as we know it is only going to be around for nine years – we’re saving it for future generations,” says freshman Rep. Jon Runyan (R) of New Jersey, a former NFL offensive lineman, who is heading home for a town meeting where the issue is sure to come up next week.

“I’ve been answering questions about this plan every day,” he adds. “You’ve got to slow it down and explain it to them. You’ve got to drive the message home: If you say it to the point that you are sick of it, you’re almost there.”

The message, according to House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, comes down to three facts: “The only plan out there to preserve and protect Medicare for current and future retirees is the plan that we’ve put forward,” he said at a press briefing on Thursday.

“Fact number two: The only people in Washington, D.C., who have voted to cut Medicare have been the Democrats when they cut $500 billion out of Medicare during ‘Obamacare.’ The third fact: The Democrats’ plan is to do nothing,” he added.

Democrats' ads target supporters of GOP budget

House Democrats have been running ads against Republicans who backed the 2012 House budget plan drafted by Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin since the April 15 vote. (All but four House Republicans voted for the GOP plan, which converted Medicare to subsidies for private insurance.) Democrats enjoyed the support of seniors and independent voters in the 2006 and 2008 elections, but lost their votes, along with their majority, in 2010.

“The outcome in NY 26 shows that seniors and independents have a serious case of buyers’ remorse,” says Jennifer Crider, communications director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). Democrats can’t necessarily take back the House on this issue, she adds, “but it puts the House in play.”

Rep. Tom Cole (R) of Oklahoma, a former head of the House GOP campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee, says that Republicans have been helped by the fact that Democrats controlling the Senate have yet to produce a plan of their own. “We have to start describing the Democrat plan as ‘Do nothing, spend it all, and go broke,’ ” he says.

Another potential advantage for Republicans is that Democrats may take the wrong lesson from the NY 26 race. “The danger for Democrats is that they think they’ve found a silver bullet for elections,” Representative Cole adds. “Sooner or later their failure to lead will fall back on the president and his party. We’ll get some points for courage and leadership from the American electorate.”

Public opinion polls

Public opinion polls find Americans of mixed minds on overhauling Medicare. While two-thirds of Americans say that they are “very concerned” about the size of the federal deficit, 57 percent say that they do not favor any cuts in Medicare to ease deficits, according to a recent Kaiser Health Tracking Poll.

A recent Gallup poll finds that two out of three Americans believe that Social Security and Medicare costs are already creating a crisis for the federal government, but 27 percent say that government should not try to control Medicare costs and 34 percent support only minor changes to the program.

Freshman Rep. Mike Kelly (R) of Pennsylvania says that he’s expecting tough questions on Medicare back in his district next week. It’s important, he adds, to remind seniors that the danger to Medicare is from Democrats who “took $500 billion out of Medicare for the president’s health-care reform and now are doing nothing to stop it from going broke.”

Whether those arguments will be enough to save Republicans who backed the plan from a voter backlash in 2012 isn’t clear, he adds. “But I came here for a cause, not a career.”

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