U.S. House Republicans pushing to overhaul Medicare dismiss the vocal opposition some have encountered from constituents as orchestrated by political foes.
The Republicans, who have spent much of the two-week congressional recess fending off questions from voters about the proposal, say they are standing by the plan, a cornerstone of the 2012 budget measure the House passed April 15 on a party- line vote.
They’re blaming much of the criticism voiced at town-hall meetings, which sometimes turned raucous, on activists dispatched by MoveOn.org and other Democratic allies, even as some of the lawmakers have taken measures to control the tone of forums.
“This is not genuine anger over Medicare; it’s manufactured political anger that’s causing the disturbances,” said Representative Lou Barletta, a freshman Republican from Pennsylvania.
At one forum, Barletta offered a slide show detailing the Republican plan, written by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. It calls for replacing the traditional Medicare health-care system for the elderly by providing those currently under the age of 55 with subsidies to buy private insurance. His presentation quickly devolved into a shouting match after a constituent accused Republicans of trying to destroy the program.
Barletta dismissed the hecklers as Democratic plants and said he would keep promoting the plan in public forums. “It’s very important for me to continue to have these meetings to make sure that seniors know they have nothing to worry about,” he said.
Democrats rejected the accusation that they had orchestrated the outrage.
“Republicans must be so blinded by their extreme ideology that they can’t see what’s happening at town halls across the country where the American people are rejecting their radical scheme to end Medicare and raise health care costs for seniors,” Jesse Ferguson, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in an e-mail.
The executive director of MoveOn.org, Justin Ruben, said in an e-mail that his group “is simply encouraging our members to attend town halls and talk to their elected representatives about their votes to abolish Medicare.”
“Republicans dismiss this anger at their peril,” he said.
The confrontational tone of meetings like Barletta’s highlight the political pressure confronting Republicans as they attempt to fulfill campaign promises to reduce the federal deficit and, in the process, alter the entitlement programs that are its biggest drivers.
While voters say they want politicians to bring down the deficit -- which the Congressional Budget Office estimates will reach $1.4 trillion by Sept. 30, the end of the 2011 fiscal year -- surveys show that they don’t want to significantly change entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security.
“The perception of the American public is we can fix all our problems if we just didn’t waste the money,” said Ed Goeas, head of the Tarrance Group, a Republican polling firm in Alexandria, Virginia. “Which makes getting into the discussion of how we make programs better more difficult.”
A Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted April 14-17 found that 78 percent of Americans oppose cutting Medicare spending to lower the debt and 65 percent said Medicare should remain as it is, rather than providing recipients with a check or a voucher from the government to purchase private insurance.
The budget crafted by Ryan would slash U.S. spending by $6.2 trillion over a decade by cutting Medicare and scores of other programs, including Medicaid, food stamps, farm subsidies and Pell college tuition grants.
As they left for the congressional recess, Republican leaders said they and their colleagues needed to focus on discussing the Medicare issue. “It’s important for our members to go home and talk about the crisis that we face” in the program’s funding, House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, told reporters on April 15.
Democrats and their allies had their own plans for the recess, mobilizing a campaign of automated phone calls, advertisements and protests that charged the Republican aim was to end the program.
The House Majority PAC, a political action committee focused on helping Democrats regain the House majority in the 2012 elections, ran radio ads in 10 districts in which an announcer said Republican lawmakers had voted for a plan that “threatens to end Medicare as we know it.”
In an April 26 interview with ABC News, Boehner cautioned that while he backed the plan, he was not “wedded to one single idea” to tackle Medicare.
“I’m for it. It’s our idea,” he said, “but other people have other ideas.”
Republicans also have sought to switch the focus from Medicare to overall federal spending -- a more challenging issue for Democrats who, polls have shown, face voter skepticism that they are willing to tackle the budget deficit.
The National Republican Campaign Committee launched a three-week run of ads targeting 13 fiscally conservative Democrats, featuring an announcer saying that the lawmakers “refused to vote for any of the five budget proposals that cut spending.”
Still, even Ryan has faced mixed receptions at public meetings in his district. Several news outlets reported that attendees booed Ryan at some of those sessions this week. He left one of them, on April 26, through a different door and in a different car due to security concerns, according to a report by Milwaukee television station WTMJ.
Representative Dan Webster, a freshman Republican from Florida, faced a confrontational crowd at an April 26 town hall meeting that included a shouting match. Video shot by Orlando television station WFTV showed hecklers holding up signs that said “Hands off my Medicare” as Webster stressed the Ryan plan’s exemption for those 55 and older from the privatization provisions.
A few Republicans have worked to restrict the typically open nature of the town hall forum.
In their town hall sessions this week, freshman Representatives Allen West of Florida and Michael Grimm of New York asked moderators to select and vet questions submitted by constituents.
Despite such efforts, three hecklers were removed from West’s forum in Fort Lauderdale on April 26, including one in handcuffs, according to local news reports.
A Democratic website, BlueBroward.org, had urged Democrats to question West at the session. “We need everybody (especially seniors) at this town hall meeting -- media will be present!” a member of the group posted on the site last week.
West said the protesters wouldn’t change his position.
“I am disturbed that a select few of people are using these informative events as their own personal soapbox,” he said in a statement. “I will not be intimidated.”
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