Congressional Democrats are seeking to reap political gain from a Republican budget plan that would restructure and cut funding for the popular government health insurance program for the elderly and the disabled, Medicare. Republicans are sticking by their budget plan to slash government spending, despite a potential backlash from voters.
Democratic lawmakers are celebrating their victory in a special election in the state of New York earlier this week in which Democrat Kathy Hochul won the seat in New York's 26th Congressional District, where Republican Chris Lee stepped down after a scandal earlier this year. The victory highlights Democratic hopes that voters' fears over cuts to Medicare, the public health insurance program for the elderly, will help reverse the party's political fortunes with big wins in races across the country in next year's general elections.
Republicans far outnumber Democrats in New York's 26th district, and, until recently, the Republican candidate, Jane Corwin, was expected to win.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi congratulated Hochul, saying that Medicare was the pivotal issue in the race.
"Medicare was the issue, as you know," said Pelosi. "It opened the door for her and she walked through, guaranteeing Medicare for America's seniors [i.e., senior citizens], calling into question the priorities of making seniors pay more, while giving tax breaks to big oil."
Pelosi was Speaker of the House until Democrats lost their majority in the House of Representatives in last year's midterm elections, which saw historic victories for Republicans. Now she and other Democrats are hoping to use the New York special election as a blueprint for winning congressional races across the country in 2012.
At issue is a budget plan introduced last month by Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan that includes major cuts to government programs and would transform Medicare from a public insurance system that guarantees specific benefits no matter what the cost, into a program that would give the elderly and the disabled subsidies to buy private health insurance. Some Republican lawmakers have heard passionate complaints about changes to Medicare at recent town hall meetings with constituents.
Asked Thursday about the Republicans' defeat in New York, Republican House Speaker John Boehner suggested that Corwin's defeat might have been due in part to a third candidate, Jack Davis, who ran with the support of the conservative Tea Party movement.
"You know special elections are just that, they are special," said the House speaker. "When you look at what happened in this election, you have a third-party candidate that spent nearly $3 million attacking the Republican candidate."
Boehner conceded that Medicare also played a role in the election, but insisted that Medicare is not sustainable under the current system. He said something has to be done to get government spending under control and to reduce the national debt.
"The only plan out there to preserve and protect Medicare for current and future retirees is the plan that we put forward," he said.
All of the House Republicans voted to support the budget plan put forth by Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, and Republican leaders are strongly criticizing Democrats in the Senate for not putting forward a 2012 budget plan of their own.
On Wednesday, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid forced Republicans in the Senate to vote on the Ryan plan. The vote was 40 in favor and 57 against, meaning it failed to pass. All of the Democratic senators and only five Republicans voted against the plan.
Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington state condemned the Republican budget plan, saying that Democrats would turn it into a major campaign issue.
"They put ideology over economy, party politics over sound policy, and billionaires and oil companies over America's families," said Murray. "And nowhere is that clearer than in the House-passed Republican budget."
Among all of the Democratic celebrating this week, former Democratic President Bill Clinton issued a word of caution, warning that Medicare is part of the nation's overall health care system that he said has a "toxic" effect on inflation. Clinton said that Medicare is one of the big fiscal challenges that lawmakers of both major political parties are going to have to deal with - regardless of whether it helps them win elections.