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House Republicans are working to prevent Medicare reform from becoming the politically defining issue of their party for the 2012 election season.
But as Members return home for a weeklong Congressional recess Friday, it remains an open question whether media attention and a strong constituent response will turn the issue of entitlements into the GOP's version of cap-and-trade, a Democratic proposal from 2009 that was met with strong opposition and damaged scores of incumbents in swing districts.
Like that issue, the new Medicare overhaul seems to have lost the support of House leaders — this time Republicans — after many potentially vulnerable lawmakers cast controversial votes in favor of replacing Medicare with a voucher program.
"If this issue continues to be mishandled during the negotiations, it will very likely end up becoming the Republican equivalent of the 2009 cap-and-trade vote," a Republican strategist said. "At some point, certain members of the leadership have to stop trying to win the battle of the daily news cycle and start trying to win the long-term strategic war."
Outraged constituents greeted Congressional Democrats in 2009 after the House approved cap-and-trade legislation, which was so politically toxic for the party that it was never taken up in the Senate.
Freshman Republican lawmakers took Medicare matters into their own hands Wednesday by sending a letter to President Barack Obama calling for an end to "playing politics with key issues facing our country."
All 42 Members who signed the letter also voted in favor of the budget proposal by Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and the group sought Wednesday to defend the plan that has been widely criticized by Democrats.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger called for hitting the "reset button" on budget talks in an attempt to strike a more civil tone.
"When we're talking about the reset, it's 'let's have the conversation,'" the Illinois Republican said.
Kinzinger said that after last month's budget vote, "we saw robocalls, we saw ads on the Web about how we're trying to pull food out of senior citizens, how we're trying to deprive them of medicine. That's not helpful in my mind for the beginning of the discussion of how to solve this."
Still, freshman Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.) acknowledged, "The Democrats and other folks have done a very good job of demonizing the Ryan proposal."
While the group of first-term GOP lawmakers conducted their outdoor press conference, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee lobbed a fiery press release.