WASHINGTON – Americans concerned about the future of Medicare can breathe a sigh of relief: recent developments on Capitol Hill suggest Republicans are easing up in their push to turn the program into a voucher system.
The proposal is a non-starter in the Senate, and unlikely to survive President Barack Obama's veto pen. Yet it could serve to pressure Democrats to accept some Medicare cuts.
But signs of deep ambivalence have emerged among key Republicans, as leaders slowly pivot from tea partiers demanding cuts to so-called entitlements and toward placating worried seniors who depend on Medicare.
It began with an interview House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) gave to the Washington Post on Wednesday night, which led the paper to conclude in a news alert, "Medicare dropped from GOP budget proposal." Cantor's office went into damage control mode, and the Post later softened its narrative by saying Republicans are open to a compromise.
That's a significant pivot for the party that has so far insisted that its privatization plan was the way to "save" Medicare. And it got worse Thursday morning, when House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-MI) said he has "no interest" in bringing up the proposal in committee.
That led Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to acknowledge the "political realities" preventing enactment of the House-approved GOP plan, which ends Medicare over ten years in favor of subsidies for seniors to buy private insurance. Boehner said Republicans still support their budget plan as a starting point for the negotiations, but are willing to make concessions to reach a deal.
Why the preemptive softening up, especially from a party not known for it?
On one hand, there are the tea partiers, the heart of the Republican base, which believes that massive spending cuts are necessary to avoid an economic apocalypse brought on by exploding debt.
On the other hand, there's the vast majority of the public, which loves Medicare -- especially seniors, a powerful voting bloc that expressed its concerns during town halls over the recent two-week recess.
The constituent anger dovetails polls showing that roughly four in five Americans -- including a majority of self-identified Republicans -- oppose cuts to Medicare, despite their concerns about the growing debt.
The backdrop of the U.S. quickly reaching its debt ceiling of $14.3 trillion in a few weeks will pressure Democrats into supporting additional spending cuts that liberals fear would be damaging. But the latest signs suggest that Medicare will likely be safe -- at least safer than it seemed yesterday.