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McConnell Tries to Shield GOP on Medicare

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is insisting that Medicare changes be part of any deal on the budget or the debt limit.

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."

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