Beset by a constant barrage of attacks from the left and increasing unease on the right, House Republican leaders plan to relaunch their proposal to turn Medicare into a privatized voucher program. Leading the charge will be the GOP budget’s architect, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), who is scheduled to deliver an address on the topic at the Economic Club of Chicago on Monday.
House Republicans have yet to find their voice on health care ever since passing their budget last month and the new push by leadership comes amid confusion over whether their leaders have abandoned their original plan entirely. Ryan will have to choose his message carefully in order to reassure the conservative base that the GOP’s appetite for cuts is undiminished while reassuring moderate Republicans in swing districts that the issue won’t wreck their re-election prospects.
The party launched their budget to great fanfare last month as Ryan introduced his “Path to Prosperity” in a series of press conferences and speeches. Its large cuts to Medicare united even conservative Democratic lawmakers against the plan from the start, however, who followed President Obama’s lead in casting the budget as a cheap shot at seniors that simultaneously lavished the wealthy with new tax breaks.
Republicans began feeling the heat in their home districts after returning during the Easter recess, including an incident in which Ryan himself was booed by constituents at a town hall in Wisconsin. Public polling consistently showed decisive majorities of Americans opposed to cuts in Medicare, preferring instead to tax the rich.
Republican freshmen, who powered the GOP to the majority last year, did not abandon the budget, but became increasingly alarmed that criticisms of their plan were gaining traction. At one point a group of Republican lawmakers held a press conference calling for a bipartisan truce on attacks over entitlements. As participants conceded in a joint letter, many of them had run campaign ads attacking Democrats over significantly smaller Medicare cuts only months earlier.
Meanwhile, leadership began to waffle on whether the Medicare plan was even on the table in budget talks. On May 5, the Washington Post reported that Majority Leader Eric Cantor has abandoned Medicare privatization, forcing his office to reassert their support for the plan. But Speaker John Boehner hinted the same day that “political realities” made it difficult to gain traction. The Medicare proposal looked close to dead after a crucial House chairman, Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), announced he would not advance Ryan’s plan through his Ways and Means committee.
This new confusion did little to halt the Democrats’ campaign, which only intensified as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) warned that Republicans who voted for the budget would be held accountable regardless of the proposal’s ultimate fate. Democrats are using an upcoming special election in New York’s right-leaning 26th district as a testing ground for their Medicare message, forcing Republicans to pour resources into what should have been an easy race after a poll showed Democrat Kathy Hochul in the lead.
Outside the House, both Senate Republicans and the 2012 presidential field were slow to embrace the GOP budget, with many politely congratulating Ryan on his effort even as they avoided endorsing his ideas. Not everyone was so polite: Newt Gingrich excoriated the House’s Medicare plan on Meet The Press this Sunday, dismissing it as “right-wing social engineering,” “radical,” and “too big a jump” for the country to take. His open revolt gives Democrats even more cover for their message that the budget is firmly rooted in the party’s Tea Party fringe.
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.