4:53am

Sat March 24, 2012
Politics

Medicare Cuts: 'End As You Know It' Or Future Gift?

Democrats lost no time in attacking the budget plan House Republicans introduced Tuesday. The plan saves money by overhauling Medicare, but Democrats argue it will destroy the program.

One of the Democrats leading the charge is Vice President Joe Biden. Taking on the role of candidate, Biden was in Coconut Creek, Fla., giving the second in what he promises will be a series of campaign speeches challenging the Republicans.

There are few places in Florida more welcoming to Democrats than Wynmoor Village, a large retirement community populated largely by people from the Northeast. Residents say there are a few closet Republicans, but more independents.

"I'm worried about Medicare for our children, not for me," one independent, Ron Goldberg, said. "I'm already there. But will it be there for our kids and our grandkids? That's the problem."

'Make No Mistake'

That's an idea House Republicans are hoping to capitalize on with their budget. Crafted by Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, it seeks to save more than $200 billion from Medicare over the next 10 years by moving future generations into privately run health plans.

When Ryan first proposed the idea in last year's budget, it was panned. This year's version has some important changes: Future seniors would have the option of retaining traditional Medicare. Also, because it builds on ideas Ryan developed with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, Republicans are able to claim it's bipartisan.

But Biden told his audience of seniors not to believe it.

"Make no mistake about it. If the Republicans in Congress, and their amen corner of Romney, Santorum and Gingrich — if any one of them get ... the keys to the White House — I promise you, you will see Medicare ended as you know it," he said.

Biden says there's no question the baby boom generation — now moving into retirement age — provides real challenges for Social Security, with the number of seniors doubling by 2040. Biden says faced with those challenges, the nation has a choice. Republicans and Democrats can work together, as they have in the past.

"Or ... are we going to use these challenges as a pretense to do what so many have been trying to do from the beginning: dismantle both of these programs?" he said.

That's a message Democrats expect to take to the general election in November, both in the race for the White House and in congressional campaigns.

On Message

Even before House Republicans voted to adopt the Ryan budget, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee rolled out a website and started making robocalls targeting 41 vulnerable House Republicans.

One of them is a first-term congressman from Orlando, Fla., Daniel Webster.

"I think the detractors from this budget are thinking about the next election," he says. "I think the Republicans in Congress are thinking about the next generation."

Webster says the Ryan budget, with its Medicare overhaul, is an important step toward a balanced budget.

Politico reported Thursday on a briefing given to House Republicans to help them sell the plan to constituents. Call it "bipartisan," they were told, and use phrases like "fix Medicare and keep it from going bankrupt."

In describing the Medicare overhaul, Webster stuck to the script.

"It's a bipartisan Medicare proposal that strengthens it and saves it actually from extinction," he said. "And if we don't do something ... it's going to go bankrupt. However, fixing it now is the key."

Webster is expected to be in a tight race this year. He says the key will be winning over independents. That means reaching people like Wynmoor village resident Arlene Grossman, an independent.

"Of course he said what the seniors want to hear," she said after Biden spoke. "But I think it's true. And the other side does not care as much about the seniors ... because they are — represent wealthy Americans."

It's a message right out of the Obama-Biden playbook.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.