- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A day after watching Democrats use Republicans’ Medicare plan to score an upset victory in a special congressional election in New York, the GOP regrouped, retooled its message and saw most of its troops rally behind the plan in a key test Senate vote.

Democrats said the vote, which came on a budget that House Republicans wrote and passed last month, will become poisonous for the GOP. They hope to use it as a wedge issue in races across the country to reshape a difficult congressional election map for them in 2012.

“Senate Democrats will be able to play offense in races across the country by remaining focused on Republican efforts to end Medicare in order to pay for an almost 30 percent tax rate reduction for the wealthiest Americans and big corporations,” Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the chairwoman of Senate Democrats’ campaign committee, said hours before the test vote.

House Republicans’ budget would convert Medicare into a voucher-type program for Americans younger than 55 and would change Medicaid into a state block grant program. It passed the Republican-controlled House by a 235-193 vote, and Democrats have been on the attack ever since, saying the GOP is trying to “kill Medicare as we know it.”

That argument played out Tuesday in New York’s 26th Congressional District, where Democrat Kathy Hochul won a special election to fill a vacant House seat from New York that had been held by Republicans for decades, and once belonged to Jack Kemp, a luminary of the low-tax side of the party that has pushed for spending and tax cuts.

The GOP said its vote was split between Republican Jane Corwin and Democrat turned tea party candidate Jack Davis, but Democrats insisted that the House Medicare vote was the turning point in the race.

Seeking to tie Senate Republicans to the same plan, Democrats orchestrated the vote Wednesday, when the House budget went down to defeat, 57-40. Five Republicans joined Democrats in voting against it, but the 40 votes of support showed the bulk of the GOP isn’t backing down in the face of attacks.

Minutes later, Republicans forced the Senate to vote on a version of President Obama’s budget, which failed by a 97-0 vote.

“The president identified the problem more than a year ago when he said that ‘almost all of the long-term deficit and debt we face relates to the costs of Medicare and Medicaid.’ But Democrats in the Senate showed today that don’t even want to talk about it,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. “They’re so focused on an election that’s nearly two years away that they can’t see the crisis in front of us.”

The Senate also rejected budget plans offered by Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, and Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, with Mr. Toomey’s budget garnering the most affirmative votes of the day at 42.

The series of votes, though, underscored the lack of any budget from Senate Democrats, who control the chamber but who have struggled to write a plan this year.

Most agree that some spending cuts are needed, but Democrats are split over where to cut. Although Democrats want to couple cuts with tax increases, Republicans have ruled out such a plan.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican who voted against all four of the plans, said the entire exercise was “absurd.”

“Using one day to hold what the majority admits are political votes involving arbitrarily chosen budgets that have not had even cursory review in the Senate is no way to govern,” she said.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota said it makes no sense for him to write a budget until the debt negotiations Vice President Joseph R. Biden is leading with top congressional negotiations are finished.

Those talks were supposed to forge agreement on raising the country’s debt ceiling, but Democrats said they are now also counting on the negotiators to come up with annual spending limits that would substitute for a budget.

The negotiators met this week, but with a June deadline imposed by Mr. Obama and with one chamber or the other out the next two weeks for a Memorial Day recess, it’s unclear whether progress can be made.

The Treasury Department says the debt ceiling must be raised by the beginning of August or else the government will have to suspend as much as 40 percent of its spending.

In the wake of Tuesday’s special election, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican who wrote the House budget plan, released a video pushing back against the attacks.

“We can no longer let politicians in Washington deny the danger to Medicare - the danger is all too real, and the health of our nation’s seniors is far too important,” Mr. Ryan said. “We have to save Medicare to avoid disruptions in benefits for current seniors, and to strengthen the program for future generations.”

With the country’s deficit projected to hit record levels this year and the government bumping up against the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, Republicans have argued the time is ripe to revisit all government spending.

Mr. Ryan’s budget plan began to reduce projected spending increases in Medicare by converting the program from a traditional fee-for-service structure into a voucher-type system for those younger than 55, for whom the government would subsidize private insurance plans once they turn 65.

Mr. Ryan said that competition and consumer pressure would lower costs and lead to savings, but Democrats, buoyed by studies, said seniors would end up paying dramatically more for the same coverage over their lifetimes.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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