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.
"Voters are smarter than the freshmen give them credit for, they can see through House Republicans' hypocritical stunt to try to silence their constituents' outrage at Republicans' vote to end Medicare and protect Big Oil," DCCC spokesman Jesse Ferguson charged.
House Republicans, including Ryan, faced some strong reactions to their budget plan during the last recess. But Republicans downplayed the extent of those flare-ups.
"It was pretty isolated," an aide said, arguing that media attention has made the issue of Medicare appear to be a much bigger problem than it really is.
On health care reform, another sweeping Democratic initiative from the last Congress that drew sharp criticism, it was only after the tea party began organizing protests in earnest — and a healthy dose of interest from national cable news networks and talk-radio shows — that the town hall confrontations become a national phenomenon.
Regardless of the likelihood of widespread protests during the upcoming recess, aides said Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.), Ryan and other Republican leaders have sought to provide their members with the messaging tools needed to blunt attacks.
For instance, Ryan has repeatedly urged Members to front-load their talks with constituents by highlighting the fact that reforms would only affect those 54 and younger. Lawmakers are also being urged to cast the efforts to reform Medicare as a difficult, but necessary, part of resolving a developing federal budget crisis. The hope is that the right message will tap into the public's support for fiscal responsibility.
Several lawmakers expressed similar resolve when asked how they felt about their vote for the Ryan budget, and they continued to call for a review of entitlements even as it remains unclear whether the issue will be addressed in bipartisan negotiations led by Vice President Joseph Biden on the debt ceiling.
"Certainly, we knew this was a big discussion; this is a major issue," freshman Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said. "The country really hasn't had the opportunity to really focus on over the past several years if we're going to save Medicare, if we're going to shore up our budget. This has got to be the discussion that we focus on."
Rep. Allen West, who was attacked by protesters at meetings with constituents during the spring recess last month, said the best way to weather the storm is for the GOP to stick to its guns.
"We've got to stand on principle," the Florida Republican said, arguing that even if Congress eliminated defense and discretionary spending, "you're still going to have a big problem" because of entitlements.
"When you show people the numbers and explain it to them, they get it," he added.
Still, some GOP aides privately fear that their bosses are in store for a constituent outcry next week. An aide to one GOP freshman warned that Democrats "have a winning message here."
"It's not a singular thing that is going to drive voters into the arms of Democrats, but it's going to play a big role in the elections, and I think the Members who are going back home to their districts next week need to be prepared for what they're going to get," the aide said.