May 24 (Bloomberg) -- Republican Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts split with his party and came out against a budget plan to privatize Medicare, saying the U.S. health program for the elderly could be cut without changing it “as we know it.”
Brown disclosed his position in an opinion article appearing yesterday in Politico. His decision came a little over a week after he told constituents in his home state that he would vote for the Medicare revamp, while predicting the measure would fail in the Senate. Democrats pounced, charging that his position contradicted Brown’s assertions that he is an independent-minded moderate.
The announcement by Brown, who is seeking election next year to his first full term in Democratic-leaning Massachusetts, highlighted the challenges in the budget debate confronting lawmakers preparing to face voters in 2012.
Republicans and Democrats alike say Congress must do something dramatic to tackle the government’s debt, and various negotiations are under way to try to achieve that goal. Yet the proposed overhaul of Medicare that the Republican-controlled House passed last month hasn’t been fully embraced within the party.
It drew fire last week from Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, who called it “right-wing social engineering” and “radical change” -- remarks for which he later apologized.
Attacks on the Medicare proposal, written by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, also have buoyed Democratic hopes of capturing a traditionally Republican U.S. House district in special election in western New York today. The Democratic candidate, Kathy Hochul, surged in the polls after focusing her fire on the Ryan plan.
Republicans, too, are using the budget dispute as campaign fodder against Democrats. The National Republican Senatorial Committee distributed statements May 19 criticizing Democrats running for re-election next year, including Senators Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Bill Nelson of Florida, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jon Tester of Montana, for their party’s failure so far to produce its own budget blueprint.
NRSC spokesman Jahan Wilcox said the Democrats have “been content to kick the can down the road and keep maxing out the government credit card.”
The impasse will be on display this week, when a vote in the Democratic-controlled Senate is expected to defeat the Ryan budget plan.
“By the end of this week, it will be clear to the nation which side put Medicare on the chopping block, which side stood up to defend it,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the chamber’s third-ranking Democrat, told reporters in a conference call yesterday.
Republican Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, said members of his party shouldn’t shy away from embracing the Ryan plan because it’s a broad statement of principle without the force of law.
“The reason I’m not as concerned as my colleagues who are running for re-election -- and I would hope that they too would support it -- is that as with any budget it is notional, it is aspirational, it does not have the specific legislative provisions that would be necessary to implement it,” said Kyl, who in February announced he wouldn’t seek another term next year.
Vice President Joe Biden and top White House officials are to meet today at the Capitol with lawmakers from both parties, including Kyl, to continue talks seeking a bipartisan budget deal. Such an accord is regarded as a prerequisite to a vote to raise the government’s $14.3 trillion debt limit, which Treasury officials have said is needed by Aug. 2 to avoid a government default. Kyl said he doubted an accord would emerge for several weeks.
The fate of Medicare has become central in the emerging 2012 presidential campaign, with a political group with ties to Obama making the Ryan budget plan the focus of its first ad targeting former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, a Republican. The spot by Priorities USA Action asks whether Romney backs the proposal. It notes the comments by Gingrich, the former House speaker from Georgia, who walked back from his criticism under pressure from other Republicans.
The Ryan budget proposal, passed 235-193 by the House on April 15, would transform Medicare starting in 2022 from a government-provided health plan into a subsidy program that gives those 65 and older money to purchase private insurance.
Brown, who in January 2010 won a special election for the seat Democrat Edward Kennedy held for more than 36 years until his death in August 2009, wrote in his article that “while I applaud Ryan for getting the conversation started, I cannot support his specific plan.”
He said seniors “will be forced to pay ever higher deductibles” under the plan, and that Medicare has already been cut too much, including as part of the 2010 health-care overhaul Obama pushed through Congress. That measure was financed in part by cutting $136 billion in subsidies to so-called Medicare Advantage plans in which private companies contract with the government to provide health coverage to seniors.
The public is divided on the issue. A USA Today/Gallup Poll last month found 44 percent supporting Obama’s budget compared with 43 percent backing Ryan’s. Still, 66 percent said they were worried the Republican plan would cut Medicare too much, while 71 percent said they were afraid Democrats wouldn’t go far enough in addressing the deficit.
At the same time, a new Associated Press/GfK Poll found that 54 percent think the budget can be balanced without cutting Medicare, compared with 44 percent who believe spending for the program must be curtailed. The survey found that the public trusts Democrats more than Republicans to handle Medicare, by a margin of 54 percent to 33 percent.
Just four House Republicans voted against Ryan’s plan, and Brown is the second senator in the party to announce plans to oppose it. Maine Senator Susan Collins -- who isn’t up for re-election next year -- previously said she would vote against it. Referring to Ryan, she told reporters yesterday, “I commend the congressman for putting forth a budget, and I wish the president would do the same, with that kind of commitment, but I cannot support it in its present form.”
Senator Dick Lugar, an Indiana Republican running for his seventh term, said he would support the Ryan plan, calling it a “constructive budget” that shows “creative thinking.”
Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who won re-election last fall as a write-in candidate after losing the Republican primary to a Tea Party-backed candidate, didn’t respond to reporters yesterday asking her how she plans to vote on the proposal.
Democrats have called on those facing re-election to denounce the budget proposal.
“It is not enough for these politicians to simply vote against the Ryan plan. They must tell the Republican establishment why this extreme plan goes too far,” Matt Canter, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said in a statement that singled out Brown, Lugar, Maine Senator Olympia Snowe and Nevada Senator Dean Heller.
Some leading Republicans want to make the plan a centerpiece of the 2012 campaign. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia yesterday called on the party’s presidential prospects to embrace it.
Asked whether Ryan should run for president himself, Cantor told reporters in Washington, “Sure,” adding, “Paul’s about real leadership. That’s what this public so desperately wants.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at or Jdavis159@bloomberg.net.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at email@example.com