House Republicans will make a defining choice this week on a sweeping plan to overhaul Medicare and Medicaid, and many are not eager for a vote that could put their jobs at risk.
Democrats, however, are eager to see the House take up the Republican 2012 budget plan. They say it represents an on-the-record endorsement by Republicans of a plan to upend a social program cherished by a growing number of aging Americans.
The House vote planned for Friday will commit the Republican Party — particularly its youngest generation of officeholders and perhaps its presidential contenders — to a perilous political path. Past GOP attempts to scale back entitlement programs, including former President George W. Bush’s 2005 attempt to privatize Social Security, have been shunned by voters.
Republicans hope the budget plan, drafted by Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), will convince Americans that only their party is willing to take on the nation’s fiscal woes. The plan, unveiled last week, is being moved swiftly through the House, although it stands little if any chance of consideration in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Republicans have widely praised Ryan for moving on a bold plan that addresses the nation’s long-term deficits. But many have avoided saying how they plan to vote, an indication they may be uneasy with the prospect of taking a vote that will eventually privatize Medicare and hand Medicaid over to states.
Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, has readily conceded that he’s taking a political risk and dragging his party along with him.
Last week, Ryan stood with a dozen of his House colleagues while releasing his budget plan. He argued that Republicans were willing to do what it took — even sacrifice their political careers — in the name of fiscal responsibility.
“We can all do something else with our lives,” he said.
Since then, his GOP colleagues haven’t sounded so willing to sacrifice themselves.
Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Palm Springs) commended Ryan “for his willingness to begin a long-overdue and critically important debate.” But she “continues to review this legislation,” including its effect on Medicare, her office said in a statement.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who is considering a presidential bid, said the plan “merits our full attention,” but didn’t go further.
Even members of the freshman class, who ran on cutting deficits and upending political convention in Washington, are treading carefully. Rep. Lou Barletta, a Republican whose Pennsylvania district was held by a Democrat for nearly 30 years before his victory in November, declined to comment on how he would vote.
Rep. Sean Duffy, a Republican freshman from a working-class, erstwhile Democratic district in northwestern Wisconsin, also has praised Ryan but has not yet signed on publicly to the plan. A spokesman said the congressman wasn’t dodging the subject, but was taking his time to review the proposal.
“This is something that Sean ran on; he’s not going to shy away from the debate,” spokesman Daniel Son said. “He’s eager to get into it, but I think just not today.”
The GOP budget is unlikely to get a single Democratic vote. There are 241 Republicans in the House, and passage would mean 218 Republicans would have to vote yes. Any more than 23 Republican defectors would result in defeat, or force GOP leaders to pull the bill from consideration.
Among its 87 GOP freshman members, about 30 House Republicans are from swing districts. For some of them, a vote in favor of privatizing Medicare could represent a giant step toward defeat in 2012.
Democratic Party activists, unions and advocacy groups also are eager for the debate. House Democratic strategists are spreading messages through more than 50 House districts that were carried by President Obama in 2008 but now are held by Republicans, an effort aimed at making voters insecure about Medicare’s future.
“House Republicans choosing to end Medicare as we know it and raise healthcare costs for seniors rather than repeal tax breaks for oil companies means that voters will be choosing Democrats in the next election,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Party’s House campaign arm.
The Alliance for Retired Americans, an interest group that played a key role in pushing back against Bush’s Social Security effort, is mobilizing around the Ryan budget.
“They’re trying to undo 47 years of Medicare in seven days,” said Richard Fiesta, director of government and political affairs for the organization. “Obviously, this is a high threat level.”
The group is planning on lobbying members of Congress, as well as mounting a series of public events, during the congressional recess next week.
Republicans contend that Democrats are eager to revive a well-worn playbook on Medicare because they’re losing the political battle over spending.
“I don’t see it as being political suicide,” said Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), a freshman from a split district. “I think the American people are looking for principled leaders to say there are some tough decisions that have to be made because these are tough times.”
The president will announce his own deficit-reduction plan Wednesday that would change entitlement programs — although he is not expected to propose a makeover as drastic as Ryan’s.
Some analysts say Ryan and his party risk falling into the same trap Bush did in 2005, when he interpreted his reelection as a sign that voters were ready for changes to Social Security. Bush’s private investment plan stalled in a matter of months, and a year later, Republicans lost control of the House.
Bush’s Social Security gambit was a “combination of hubris, obstinacy and misreading the audience,” said Susan McCue, who helped craft a Democratic protest while she was an aide to Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.).
Along with Bush’s Social Security misfire, in 1995 then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s insistence in cutting Medicare by almost $300 billion helped trigger the last major government shutdown, boosting President Clinton’s political prospects as a result.
Democrats have made missteps too. Proposals by both Clinton and Obama to refashion the nation’s healthcare system were met with fierce resistance from seniors. And one reason that Ryan and the Republicans retook the House in 2010 was because of opposition to the Affordable Care Act, championed by Obama.