Republicans have a message on their plan to privatize Medicare: It’s bipartisan. Democrats have a counter-message: Hell no, it’s not.
As the GOP works to portray Rep. Paul Ryan’s blueprint for Medicare as bipartisan, Democrats are working equally hard to keep their fingerprints off it. Dem operatives see the proposal — which in 10 years would begin phasing out the existing program and replacing it with a subsidized exchange where seniors can shop for plans — as a huge opportunity in the elections. House Republicans passed the plan last week without a single Democratic vote.
Now, Republicans are pushing to box in Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, as a former supporter of the “premium support” concept.
Republican staffers on the powerful Ways & Means Committee noted that Israel voted for the concept in 2003, in a later-jettisoned House version of the prescription drug benefit that included provisions requiring Medicare to compete with private plans, albeit not on the scale of the Ryan plan.
The committee’s majority staff said Israel “cast the deciding vote that would have enacted a new premium support program in Medicare. That premium support model, contained in the House-passed Medicare prescription drug benefit legislation, is similar to the one contained in the House Republican budget, which Israel is now lambasting.”
Israel’s office called the charge “laughably disingenuous.”
“Rep. Israel voted to expand Medicare to offer prescription drug benefits, and that is the exact opposite of the last two Republican budgets that end the Medicare guarantee,” his spokeswoman Samantha Slater told TPM. “It’s apples and oranges, and desperate at that.”
Who’s got the better argument? The 2003 House-passed Medicare plan within the prescription drug bill did plant the seeds for a system similar to the current House’s premium support plan, even though it didn’t ultimately survive. Israel was one of few Dems who voted for that version, though the broader Medicare reforms were ultimately stripped from the final bill that became law. The existence of those provisions illustrates just how long-standing the GOP’s commitment to privatizing Medicare truly is.
Achieving bipartisan cover for their current Medicare plan — which the conservative base supports but the general public is wary of — is an important part of the party’s strategy to fend off Democratic attacks for seeking to “end Medicare as we know it.” Apart from Israel, they’ve also pointed to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who last fall teamed up with Ryan on a plan to upend the current Medicare program.
But he, too, is refusing to bite. “Sen. Wyden does not support the House Republican Budget for a lot of reasons,” his deputy chief of staff Jennifer Hoelzer told TPM. She said Wyden still supports the broader premium-support concept, but pointed to key differences between Wyden-Ryan and the new Ryan Medicare plan, such as the value of the subsidy.
The new version of the Ryan plan, notably, is less harsh than last year’s version, which the House GOP also voted for overwhelmingly. It includes traditional Medicare as a public option in the exchanges and caps the value of the subsidies at a higher rate.
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.