The Medicare Hunters May Get Mauled

For nine months, Representative Dick Zimmer (R-N.J.) marched loyally with the revolutionary shock troops of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). He cast some 25 votes for a balanced budget and hectored comrades to stand firm. "We have talked the talk. Now it is time to walk the walk," Zimmer said last May.

But when it came to votes in late October to overhaul Medicare and balance the budget, Zimmer wasn't walking, he was sprinting--in the other direction. "The bill in its current form is unfair to New Jersey," Zimmer declared, after casting a vote against the GOP plan.

The Garden State lawmaker isn't Washington's only anguished Republican. There is a growing fear that the party may have hooked a losing issue when it decided to wring $270 billion in savings out of the Medicare program at the same time it was cutting taxes by $245 billion. A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted Oct. 22-24 found that only 26% of Americans approved of the Republican Medicare overhaul, while 57% disliked it. And a Washington Post/ABC News poll found that, by 58% to 38%, voters favor "leaving Medicare services basically as they are now," even if it means failing to balance the budget.

The trouble for the GOP doesn't end there. Statehouse Republicans across the country are grumbling that their party's budget, which shifts responsibility for social programs while capping federal aid, could force Republican governors to cut services or raise taxes.

Already, the Medicare issue has engulfed the 1996 GOP Presidential contest. Populist outsider Patrick J. Buchanan is airing ads blasting Congress for balancing the budget "the wrong way." He demands cuts in foreign aid and congressional pensions "before we cut Medicare for senior citizens."

For now, Hill Republicans are sticking to their mantra: They're not cutting Medicare, they're slowing the program's growth. But Buchanan's broadside has flustered many. And Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) dug a deeper hole on Oct. 24 when he told the activist American Conservative Union that he opposed Medicare as a young House member in 1965 "because we knew it wouldn't work."

That comment could haunt Dole's Presidential campaign--and '96 GOP congressional candidates. Democrats seized upon it as evidence of a shadowy conspiracy to gut Medicare. Senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.), Dole's bitter GOP adversary, quickly pledged allegiance to Medicare and blamed Dole for "handing the Democrats' public-relations machine ammunition to scare senior citizens."

The Democrats are heartened. The Post/ABC poll found that, for the first time since the 1994 election, more voters say they would prefer a Democrat to represent them on Capitol Hill. "Newt has led his troops over the cliff without a blindfold," chortles Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.

TAKING NO CHANCES. GOP strategists insist Republicans will rebound when voters learn they saved Medicare from bankruptcy. "We are at about the bottom end of where we go in the poll numbers," predicts National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Bill Paxon (R-N.Y.). "The Democrats have overplayed their hand."

Still, GOP incumbents are not taking any chances back home. Representative Phil English (R-Pa.) has set up his own Medicare "advisory board" to listen to constituents' complaints. And Representative Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), whose district is heavily Democratic, has scheduled seniors' forums to explain the GOP program. "We've got to work intensively in the next two months to make sure people are not so polarized they won't listen to us," he says.

Meanwhile, GOP dissenters are being roasted by fellow Republicans. Conservatives accuse Zimmer of betrayal. "It was an act of cowardice," thunders GOP state senator Dick LaRossa. "I don't think Dick Zimmer has the stomach for a tough fight."

So far, just a few revolutionaries have fled under fire. But GOP loyalists wonder whether they will end up heroes or martyrs.

Backlash in the Making?

From what you know of the Republican plan to change Medicare, do you:

Approve 26%

Disapprove 57%

If GOP spending and tax plans are passed, will the budget be balanced by 2002?

Yes 12%

No 81%

Whom do you trust more to make decisions about budget balancing?

President Clinton 39%

Congressional Republicans 44%

If you had to choose, would you prefer:

Cutting taxes 35%

Balancing the federal budget 60%


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