Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is moving to insulate Republicans on the politically thorny Medicare reform issue by insisting that it be included in any bipartisan agreement to raise the debt ceiling.
With Senate Republicans divided on how to deal with Medicare amid potent Democratic charges that the GOP wants to gut it, the Kentucky Republican is looking to an eventual debt ceiling deal not only to score a long-sought policy victory on the popular health care entitlement for seniors, but also to do so without damaging his party's 2012 prospects.
"You simply cannot get a comprehensive solution, or a pathway to a solution, on our debt and deficit problems and leave entitlements aside," McConnell said last week. "Medicare will be a part of the solution."
Senate Republicans are unified behind the idea that Medicare needs an overhaul. However, they remain split on exactly how to do that, with many shying away from endorsing the House-passed plan to turn the 46-year-old program into a government subsidy for private companies. The plan would not apply to Americans 55 and older.
Democrats have been using the plan authored by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) to hammer the GOP, making the Senate Republicans' attempt at a multilayered message difficult to convey. Their more complicated message amounts to this: The federal deficit and debt are hampering economic growth and job creation; a comprehensive budget solution is needed to revive the economy; no solution is possible without Medicare reform; and the Democrats have no Medicare plan and by default are ignoring the economy. The Democratic counter-message requires just one line.
"They are in a march to end Medicare as we know it, and we believe that is not what the American people want," Sen. Bob Menendez (N.J.) said Wednesday during a conference call that was part of what has become the Democrats' daily barrage against the Republicans on the issue.
Menendez, who is running for re-election in 2012, said Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama might be willing to entertain Medicare reform as part of an agreement to raise the debt ceiling, but not if the plan resembles Ryan's proposal, which cleared the House with the votes of all but four Republicans. Menendez said Democrats might be open to initiatives that build upon Obama's health care reform law, a sure nonstarter for the GOP.
Senate GOP aides expressed confidence that their message will penetrate with voters and inoculate their Members from the Democrats' attack that Republicans are intent on eliminating Medicare for current and future seniors. Ryan's plan was defeated in a Senate floor vote last week in which five GOP Senators voted against it.
Still, some Republicans are more candid about the political challenge facing the GOP.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who authored a budget proposal that did not address entitlements, said Republicans have been losing the public relations battle over Medicare in part because of the political and practical difficulties inherent in any attempt to sell voters on dramatic fiscal and programmatic reforms. Paul suggested the Republicans might have been more effective in selling Ryan's Medicare proposal, if they had separated it from the fiscal 2012 budget plan.
"One of the problems he's having is, it's stuck in a whole big budget with a lot to talk about, and it needs to be fully explained," Paul told reporters last week. "They're losing that battle in the public, as far as the explanation, not because they're wrong."
Since Obama's 2009 inauguration, McConnell has managed to steer his Conference on a unified course on many, though not all, matters, including the president's initial economic stimulus plan, health care reform and a December deal to extend tax cuts that were set to expire at year's end. But this time around, Senate Republicans have been unable to unify on a single plan to overhaul Medicare, and they have often spoken in competing voices on the subject.
In Senate votes late last week, several Republicans staked out different positions on three different budget plans, including Ryan's, Paul's and a third proposed by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.). Toomey's budget, which would drastically reduce government spending and repeal portions of Obama's health care law, included changes to Medicaid but not to Medicare.
According to one knowledgeable GOP lobbyist, McConnell has tried to change the debate over Medicare into one about overall budget reform and economic growth in part to compensate for the fact that his Conference is not of one voice on the issue. The Minority Leader has calculated that if the argument centers on the budget crisis and Democrats' failure to propose a solution, Republicans stand to gain.
The strategy has buy-in from the full GOP Conference and is supported as well by Republicans in the House, this lobbyist said.
McConnell, this individual added, "has rightly diagnosed this issue as one that divides members of his Conference and poses potential liabilities on both sides. The ultimate goal is to bring the debate back out of Medicare and into the context of the entire budgeting process."