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Medicare Becomes Political Hot Potato

A surprise election result turns into a partisan tug-of-war rattling the 2012 campaign

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich made the biggest splash in early May by criticizing the Ryan plan as "social engineering," then backtracking, apologizing to Ryan and calling on Democrats not to use his words against him. That's a call unlikely to be heeded, particularly since Democrats believe the Medicare issue is what propelled Hochul to victory in New York.

"Medicare, Medicare, Medicare" were the reasons for the victory given by Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. There was also a third party candidate who took about 9 percent of the vote, and the Republican candidate, Jane Corwin, was slow to pick up on the fact that her race had been nationalized and become a magnet for big Democratic Party money.

Republicans, who admittedly did a poor job of explaining the Ryan Medicare proposals, have their work cut out for them as they begin an extended Memorial Day recess. They will be trying to put the Medicare proposal in the larger context of budget cutting while returning to economic issues, which put Democrats on the defensive.

Boehner, however, is in the position of defending his House Republicans who voted for the plan, even though the plan has no chance of becoming law. As the recess began, Boehner sought to turn the tables, saying that the Ryan plan was the only one out there that would save Medicare because without radical changes Medicare will go broke in the next decade.

"The Democrats' plan is to do nothing," he said, adding that the Medicare and Social Security Trustees report released in May said that "doing nothing means the Medicare plan will go bankrupt and seniors' benefits will be cut."

Democrats dispute this, saying they would not let Medicare fail, though they have sought to attack Republicans rather than prescribe a solution of their own. Ironically, it was Republicans who attacked Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, which brought them to power in the House, saying that the Obama health care overhaul will cut $500 billion out of Medicare. Democrats dispute the figure, saying that the $500 billion figure refers to future savings projected by the Obama health plan and limited to the Medicare Advantage plans.

Elaine S. Povich is a veteran Washington reporter.

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