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Cut a Deal: The New GOP Strategy on Medicare?



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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) said Friday that he doesn’t think Medicare will be a liability for Republicans in next year’s election. In fact, he said it wouldn’t even be a central issue. Speaking to reporters at a press conference in the Capitol, he predicted a bipartisan agreement on “significant” Medicare reform would happen “well before” Election Day 2012 that would effectively neutralize the issue.

“I don’t think this is an issue that we should be apprehensive about,” he said. “The 2012 election will take care of itself — it’s about a year and a half from now — I would think that we will hopefully have done something significant in this area by then and the American people can decide whether they want to punish both sides for having done that because it will take both sides to do it.”

The implication is clear. If enough Democrats opt for the Bill Clinton approach, as opposed to the Nancy Pelosi approach when it comes to Medicare, Republicans can avoid the political backlash of being the party who “voted to kill Medicare,” etc. As David Brooks suggests in his Friday column “Medicare Survival Guide“: “Republicans need Democratic fingerprints on a plan to restrain entitlements.” Practically speaking, any plan to reform entitlements must have Democratic fingerprints in order to get enacted, given the present makeup of Congress and the White House.

“Anything we agree to do together will not be an issue in next year’s election,” added McConnell. “The public will look at that and they will conclude that if both sides felt this was necessary — I might not have liked this part or that part of it — but if both sides thought this was necessary to do I don’t think either side will have to worry about political fallout next year.”

Indeed, McConnell exuded a very bipartisan vibe, quoting liberally from statements made by prominent Democrats such as Clinton,  House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) and deficit commission co-chair Erskine Bowles. He repeatedly alluded to the bipartisan compromise on Social Security orchestrated by President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill in the early 1980s.

He also expressed high hopes for the negotiations being led by Vice President Joe Biden as the “best opportunity” for a comprehensive solution to the nation’s debt and deficit problems. “It’s the only discussion in town with the most important Democrat in the country at the table, and that’s the president of the United States,” McConnell said. “He is, also, as well all the know, the only one of the 307 million of us who can actually sign a bill into law.”

The minority leader dismissed suggestions that the Republicans’ surprising upset in the NY-26 special election would have little bearing on the politics of 2012, as many on the left have gleefully predicted. “I think drawing a whole lot of conclusions out of a three-way race [in] New York a year and a half before the [next] election is…kind of foolish,” he said. “A lot will have happened between now and the fall of ‘12.”

McConnell insisted that he would only vote for an agreement to raise the federal debt ceiling if it contained significant entitlement reform, regardless of the size of the proposed spending cuts. “All this silly talk about how Medicare is not going to be a part of the solution is nonsense,” he said. “Medicare is on the table.” He did not, however, go into detail about what kinds of reforms to Medicare he would like to see included in a deal. Nor did he specifically embrace the “premium support” model proposed in the House Republican budget.

But for all his adamant insistence that Medicare reform be included in a final deal, McConnell was bit more vague on the question of taxes, resorting about boilerplate about a nation that “spends too much, not taxes too little.” However, he did ultimately concede he was “confident that taxes are not going to be a part of this.”

To the extent that such a deal is possible, it’s easy to see the political appeal, for Republicans, of getting a bipartisan agreement on Medicare reform before the 2012 election gets into full swing. But in order to do that, they’ll have to believe that Democrats are willing to take seriously an issue that both parties have been all too happy to demagogue each other on for decades, which is hard to imagine (See: here, here and here, for example).

Some Democrats have made clear that see no point in making any changes to the massively popular entitlement program, even though it’s own actuaries predict it will go bankrupt in 2024 (and likely sooner). “We have a plan. It’s called Medicare,” insists Nancy Pelosi. And Rep. James Clyburn (D., S.C.), one of the party’s representatives at the Biden talks, recently indicated that Medicare reform was not going to happen because ‘Democrats already fixed it with Obamacare,’ etc.

Bill Clinton, of all people, got it right when he said Democrats must be willing to give up some short-term political gain for the good of the economy. But will they? And at what price?



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