Washington – Less than 24 hours after their upset victory in the race for a vacant House seat, Democrats sought to press their advantage on Wednesday, forcing Republicans in the Senate to vote yes or no on what is emerging as the defining issue in the early stages of the 2012 campaign, the plan advanced by House Republicans to reshape Medicare.
The Republican plan was defeated by a vote of 57-40, with five Republicans abandoning their party to vote against the plan. The five Republicans voting against were Senators Scott Brown of Massachusetts; Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine; Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
Seeing the outcome of the House race as evidence that voters had rejected the Republican Medicare plan as going too far, Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader, brought the legislation to the floor so that Senate Republicans would either have to vote for it, exposing them to attacks from Democrats and their allies throughout the campaign, or against it, expoiting growing Republican divisions on the issue.
The Republican Medicare plan would convert Medicare into a subsidized program for the private insurance market. When they proposed it just last month, House Republicans were confident that the wind of budget politics was at their backs and that the country’s looming fiscal problems provided justification to begin reshaping the increasingly costly social welfare system.
But the last six weeks have left Republicans pointed into a stiff headwind. With polls and angry town hall meetings suggesting that many voters were wary if not opposed to the Medicare overhaul, party unity and optimism gave way to a slow-motion backtracking in the House and, in the Senate and on the presidential campaign trail, a bit of a Republican-on-Republican rumpus.
Even before the Republican loss Tuesday night in the race for a vacant House seat from New York — a contest fought in large part over the Medicare proposal — Democrats were clinging to the developments like koalas to eucalyptus trees, hoping that the plan’s toxicity among many voters would give them a shot at retaining control of the Senate and, in their most vivid dreams, taking back the House majority.
It is still a long way to Election Day 2012, the underlying problem of a long-term fiscal imbalance remains as pressing as ever and Democrats face divisions and messaging problems of their own.
But after a 2010 election that seemed to signal not only a Republican resurgence but also a rejection of big government and a need for bold, Tea Party-type steps to slash spending, the politics now look a whole lot more complicated. Both parties are being reminded anew that voters like the idea of budget cuts, but that they often recoil when those cuts threaten the programs that touch their lives.
While well aware that there were political risks, many Republicans went into this year convinced that the rapid growth of the national debt had changed the public mood when it came to tackling the entitlement programs, starting with Medicare, the biggest driver of projected future deficits. In an ambitious budget plan written by Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Budget Committee, House Republicans embraced a proposal that would convert Medicare into a subsidized program for the private insurance market.
Even after Tuesday night’s loss in the New York special election, in a district Republicans had held for decades, some Republicans remain chin out, calling the Ryan plan much-needed medicine that the public will eventually embrace.
Others up for re-election, and some of those running for president, will not firmly commit themselves one way or another. And a small but growing number are saying no.
The divisions among Republicans are in large part situational.
Candidates looking to shore up their conservative bona fides among Republican presidential primary voters, like Jon M. Huntsman Jr., a former governor of Utah, have praised the plan. Some Congressional incumbents, like Senator Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, have weighed the respective threats of Tea Party primary challengers against the wrath of moderate or elderly voters, and decided not to support it.
Some presidential candidates seeking to appeal to a broader base, like former Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, are trying to split the difference, saying that the plan is O.K. but that they will offer their own that will be even more refined.
Others still, like George Allen, a Republican candidate for Senate in Virginia, appear to be trying to suss out where the political minefields are, and refuse to say if they support the plan or not.
This sort of indecision has further inflamed those Republicans who continue to enthusiastically back the plan, even though the House has more or less conceded that it will not become legislation this year. “I’m looking for them to embrace our formula in the Ryan budget,” said Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, the majority leader, concerning Republican candidates who will not commit support for it.
But just as individual candidates must take the measure of their own races, the party’s response is also circumstance-driven. Newt Gingrich, a presidential candidate who seemed to think he had the gravitas to walk his party back from an increasingly toxic issue, denounced the plan to great retribution from both the establishment and Tea Party wings, and had to recant. Senator Scott P. Brown of Massachusetts, who is running for reelection in a tough state, said he would vote against the plan but was greeted largely by silence within his party.
Every House Republican member save six voted for the House budget plan that includes the Medicare overhaul, and scores of them were met with Democratic attack ads days after the gavel fell on that vote.
But while President Obama has tried to set parameters for budget negotiations, his party has yet to settle on a plan for Medicare or the broader budget issues, beyond its near-universal opposition to the Ryan plan. And failure to address the nation’s fiscal problems aggressively could carry its own risk for Democrats.
Democrats were attacked by Republicans in 2010 for having supported cuts to Medicare in the new health care law, and some concede they will have to back further painful cuts if the two parties are going to come to a budget deal this year. Representative Steny H. Hoyer, the minority whip, has said unequivocally that Medicare cuts of some form will be a component of any agreement with Republicans in the debt limit negotiations, an outcome that could blunt any traction the Democrats have gained.
Minutes after the race was called late Tuesday night, Republicans and their political organizations began playing down the role of the Medicare debate in the outcome, and suggesting that Democrats were putting all their 2012 eggs in a one-issue basket.
“With millions of Americans out of work and 9 percent unemployment,” said Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio, “anyone who thinks the 2012 election won’t be about jobs is delusional.”
American Crossroads, a conservative group, released a statement that pooh-poohed the significance of the race, while also elevating it as a warning shot. “What is clear is that this election is a wake-up call for anyone who thinks that 2012 will be just like 2010,” the statement read. “It’s going to be a tougher environment, Democrats will be more competitive, and we need to play at the top of our game to win big next year.”
Still, Senate Democrats are looking for every opportunity to cast themselves as protectors of the elderly. Senator Charles E. Schumer, who is in charge of the Senate Democrats’ message machine, has held conference calls and news conferences repeatedly to denounce the plan from every angle.
During the House recess last week, Representative Rob Woodall of Georgia told a constituent who pressed him about Medicare that she should ask herself “ ‘When do I decide I’m going to take care of me?’ ” which became an instant Schumer press release.
“We relish the chance to stand up and cast a vote to protect Medicare,” Mr. Schumer said.
In addition to Ms. Snowe and Mr. Brown, Senator Susan Collins of Maine has already said she will reject the plan, and Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska has expressed skepticism.
Republicans have asked to have alternatives budgets also come up for an initial vote. Those alternatives include a plan crafted by Senator Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania that contains many of the same cuts as Mr. Ryan’s plans but leaves Medicare out of the picture, and another by Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, which includes a vast elimination of government services.
The Republicans would also like to write a bill reflecting Mr. Obama’s initial 2012 budget, which became an albatross for his party because it did not cut spending. However, because the Ryan plan already passed the House, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, could send the Ryan plan for votes alone, without bringing up other budget bills.
Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, summed up the state of affairs neatly on Tuesday. “This is the first time in the history of the United States Senate that a majority leader has brought up a budget passed by the other house of the other party,” he said. “So I think you can sum up the week with the various budget amendments as interesting, but not determinative of what we do in terms of reducing spending and debt.”
This article “Senate Rejects House G.O.P. Medicare Plan by 57-40 Vote” originally appeared at The New York Times.