Republicans gamble on long-term spending cuts
WASHINGTON — Republicans have gambled on a risky course to deny President Barack Obama reelection in 2012: deep long-term spending cuts that could cost them critical support from elderly voters.
Republicans owed their November 2010 rout of Democrats in large part to Americans over 65, who went for the party by a 59-38 margin four years after splitting evenly in the 2006 mid-term contest.
But the party’s budget relies heavily on deep cuts to the Medicare and Medicaid health programs for the elderly, poor and disabled to reach its goal of some $4.4 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade.
That non-binding blueprint sailed through the House of Representatives Friday on an almost perfect party-line vote of 235-193, with just four Republicans opposing it and not one Democrat backing the plan.
A recent poll by the Gallup organization found just 31 percent of the US public backs a total overhaul of Medicare or making major changes to the program, even as retiring Baby Boomers swell its ranks and increase its cost.
Democrats from Obama on down have pounded the plan, which was crafted by Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, for offering tax cuts to the richest Americans and corporations while paring back the social safety net.
“I want to say to my Republican colleagues: do you realize that your leadership is asking you to cast a vote today to abolish Medicare as we know it?” Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said before the vote.
Republicans have cast the matter as a question of “courage” in the face of a government deficit expected to hit $1.6 trillion this year and balloon in future years and a ballooning national debt of more than $14 trillion.
“The greatest danger that America faces today is doing nothing,” Republican House Speaker John Boehner said Friday when asked about the potential voter backlash.
“These are important programs for tens of millions of Americans. And transforming them so they’ll be around for our kids and grandkids is as important as anything that we can do here,” he said.
The Ryan plan seemed sure to die in the Democratic-held Senate, which aims to produce its own budget soon amid an escalating war over Obama’s request to lift the limit on how much cash-strapped Washington can borrow.
“In the months to come, we will not miss a single opportunity to remind the public that Republicans voted to end Medicare benefits in order to give extra tax breaks to millionaires,” said Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer.
Schumer said Republicans “have let Tea Party zeal get the better of them,” a reference to the archconservative movement that helped the White House’s foes retake the House and erode the Democratic Senate majority in November.
Ryan’s plan aims to limit the potential political damage by keeping benefits intact for people currently 55 years old or over while selling younger voters on the idea that the cuts are the price of saving the popular programs.
Ryan’s plan would privatize the Medicare health program for older Americans, providing payments directly to private insurance plans, and turn the Medicaid health program for the poor from a partnership between Washington and the states into block grants from the federal government.
Critics have charged that the Medicare approach is a recipe for cost controls by rationing care, and that the Medicaid plan would starve states of cash if an economic downturn forces more people to seek shelter in that program.
The two programs, enacted in 1965, reach nearly 100 million Americans and are critical parts of the fraying US social safety net, burdened by a surge in retirees and swollen by growing ranks of newly poor in the 2008 economic crisis.
Lawmakers headed Friday on a two-week recess not unlike the August 2009 break in which they faced deep voter anger at Obama’s landmark health care overhaul proposal, in part because it included planned reductions in Medicare monies.