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Republicans Forced To Reverse Course, Yet Again, On Medicare

First Posted: 03/18/10 06:12 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 03:55 PM ET

A new effort by Senate Democrats to expand Medicare coverage by opening it up to 55- to 64-year-olds has forced Republicans into an about face of sorts.

Republican Senators, who for weeks have been dogging their Democratic counterparts for pursuing what they describe as drastic cuts to the Medicare program, are now making the awkward shift from ostensibly championing Medicare to fighting against its expansion.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-K.Y.) sent out a press release on Sunday, titled: "Cutting Medicare is not what Americans want." That was followed by a new press release on Monday. Its title: "Expanding Medicare 'a plan for financial ruin.'

"We already know that Medicare is going broke in seven years," McConnell told Fox News on Tuesday. "They are taking money out of Medicare in this health care proposal not to make Medicare more sustainable but to start a new entitlement program for a different set of Americans. In addition to that, now they are talking about expanding access to Medicare and Medicaid, both of which are already in terrible trouble. This is the worst kind of political deal-making in this frantic attempt to get to 60 votes."

Democrats contend that the logic is strained. For starters, they say, Senate Democrats are eyeing cuts in Medicare to eliminate waste in the system, not to destroy it. The money saved would go to alternative reforms. The so-called "new entitlement program" that McConnell mentions -- presumably the public health-insurance option -- would save money over time, not require it, according to non-partisan budget estimates. And the new arrivals in the Medicare program would be buying their way in, presumably paying for themselves.

McConnell's positions aren't strictly contradictory. Republicans may be in favor of protecting Medicare for seniors who are currently enrolled while simultaneously opposed to expanding the program for others.

"Apparently reading comprehension can be added to math as an unnecessary skill set for proponents of government run health care," a Senate GOP leadership aide emailed the Huffington Post. "If Democrats can't understand that cutting Medicare while simultaneously seeking to expand its role is disastrous they should not be advocating anything on behalf of the American people."

But, politically speaking, the GOP position on the government-run health care program certainly has become twisted, and then twisted again.

In August, Republicans came to the conclusion that they could win political traction by framing their party as a defender of the government-run system, despite having decried it for decades. RNC Chairman Michael Steele released a "seniors' health care bill of rights" and held a testy exchange with an NPR reporter to drive this home his Medicare support.

It seemed like opportunism then. Now, however, it has the potential to trip the GOP up. Having spent the last two weeks insisting that Democrats were destroying the bedrock of health care coverage for seniors, Republicans may soon be forced to explain why expanding Medicare coverage would be a bad thing. One Democratic staffer on the Hill said she was eagerly looking forward to seeing the GOP reverse course. Another health care advocate off the Hill summarized her thoughts as follows:

"The Republicans have to choose: continue their hypocritical attacks on Medicare or show their true colors and refuse to give older Americans the relief they need. Either way, their credibility is shot and they can't do either effectively."

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