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From Campaign Trail to Capitol Hill, GOP Faces Questions on Medicare Plan

May 23, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Republicans continue to face questions about the party's plan to overhaul Medicare after former House Speaker Newt Gingrich charged that it amounted to "right-wing social engineering" last week, but later changed his stance. Congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports on the GOP's efforts to get the plan back on track.

GWEN IFILL: From the campaign trail to Capitol Hill, Republicans continue to face questions about the party’s plan to overhaul Medicare.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has our report.

KWAME HOLMAN: House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposal to reform Medicare has tied his party in knots. Yesterday, he attempted to quiet his critics and reassure fellow conservatives in an appearance on NBC.

REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis. Budget Committee chairman: Look, of course people are scared of entitlement reform, because every time you put entitlement reform out there, the other party uses it as a political weapon against you. Look, both parties have done this to each other.

Here’s the problem, David. If we don’t get serious about these issues, if we don’t get serious about the drivers of our debt, we’re going to have a debt crisis.

KWAME HOLMAN: Ryan’s plan came under fresh scrutiny last week, after former House Speaker Newt Gingrich charged it amounted to “right-wing social engineering.”

Speaking on CBS yesterday, Gingrich admitted he should have chosen his words more carefully, but stood by his broader point.

NEWT GINGRICH, (R) former speaker of the House: I probably used unfortunate language about social engineering. But my point was really a larger one, that neither party should impose on the American people something that they are deeply opposed to.

KWAME HOLMAN: In fact, a new Associated Press poll released today found 72 percent of respondents believe Medicare is extremely or very important to their financial security in retirement. The survey also showed respondents trust Democrats over Republicans to do a better job handling Medicare by a 54-33 percent margin.

Amid the signs public opinion is on their side, Senate Democrats want to force a vote this week on the Republican budget in an effort to highlight the GOP’s divisions over it.

Appearing on “FOX News Sunday,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged his conference would not be united in support of the Ryan plan.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky. minority leader: What I have said to our members are that we’re not going to be able to coalesce behind just one. And we may well vote on the Ryan budget. I’m going to make sure that the Democrats get to vote on the Obama budget, which the — which my counterpart, Harry Reid, thought was terrific back in February. So, there will be votes on several different budgets in the Senate.

KWAME HOLMAN: The first concrete sign of fracture appeared today, when Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown said he would vote no on the GOP budget.

Brown wrote in a Politico op-ed: “Our country is on an unsustainable fiscal path, but I do not think it requires us to change Medicare as we know it. We can work inside of Medicare to make it more solvent.”

In a conference call this afternoon, New York Democrat Chuck Schumer said a vote on the GOP budget would be a lose-lose for Republicans.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER, D-N.Y.: The Republicans are getting the worst of both worlds. They want to distance themselves from this vote, but there’s no face-saving way to do so. They have tried to turn themselves into pretzels to figure out how to deal with this awful plan passed by the House.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Medicare issue also has played a central role in upstate New York, where a closely watched special election for the 26th Congressional District is being held tomorrow.

At a debate last week, Republican Jane Corwin and Democrat Kathy Hochul offered very different takes on the GOP plan.

JANE CORWIN, R-N.Y. congressional candidate: If we want Medicare to be around for current seniors and for future generations, we need to make changes now. So, I am very supportive of a plan that will ensure that seniors currently get the benefits that they currently enjoy or are expecting; anyone under the age of 55, create a program that they will have for the future.

KATHY HOCHUL, D-N.Y. congressional candidate: I think we ought to stay with the facts here. It is a voucher program. It ends Medicare as we know it. And, for current seniors — current seniors are affected because it eliminates the plans to start shrinking that doughnut hole, which reduces their prescription drug costs. So, even current seniors are very afraid of this program, and that’s what’s scaring them.

KWAME HOLMAN: A new poll out today showed Democrat Hochul leading Corwin by four points in a district that traditionally has favored Republicans.