WASHINGTON -- Speaker John Boehner is urging rank-and-file House Republicans to go on offense over Medicare as Democrats argue that the GOP presidential ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would end the government-run health care program that seniors have embraced for decades.
In a conference call with members Tuesday night, Boehner pushed back against both the Democratic criticism and the unnamed GOP strategists who fret that Ryan's plans for Medicare will hurt GOP candidates, especially in battleground states with significant numbers of seniors such as Florida, Iowa and Pennsylvania.
The Ryan budget, backed by House Republicans, would scrap the current Medicare system in favor of a voucher program for those under 55 today. The plan also calls for gradually raising the Medicare retirement age from 65 to 67.
"The pundits are buzzing that with Paul on the ticket, the Democrats are going to attack us on Medicare. Well, here's a news flash: They were gonna do that anyway," Boehner told lawmakers. "The best defense on Medicare is a good offense. And Paul Ryan gives us the ability to play offense."
Republicans point out that President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, which remains unpopular, cut Medicare by about $700 billion. They also argue that Ryan's budget tackles a long-simmering issue Democrats have failed to address – the fate of an entitlement program facing insolvency in 2024.
"We want this fight not just because Obamacare raided Medicare by $700 billion, but also because Republicans are the only ones who've taken action to save this program," Boehner said.
Ryan and Republicans omit the fact that his budget leaves Obama's cuts in place.
On Wednesday afternoon, House Democratic leaders held a conference call with their members and pressed them to respond to the Republican criticism over the Medicare cuts.
Specifically, the leaders urged members to explain that the cuts would not come from benefits, and the health overhaul law would mean seniors pay less for drugs.
Democrats stressed in the call that lawmakers should argue that the voucher system could mean seniors pay more for their health care.
Congressional aides provided details about the calls anonymously because they were private discussions among lawmakers.
On the Republican call, which the leadership frequently arranges for members during the August break, Boehner also urged lawmakers to remain on offense on the issue of jobs and the economy.
But since Romney announced Ryan as his running mate on Saturday, the political debate has shifted from the economy to Medicare. Romney's campaign unveiled an ad Tuesday criticizing Obama for raiding the program to pay for his health care plan.
The president answered back Wednesday during a campaign stop in Iowa, arguing that Romney and Ryan would end Medicare "as we know it" while countering that his steps have strengthened the program.
"I have made reforms that have saved millions of seniors with Medicare hundreds of dollars on their prescription drugs," Obama said. "I have proposed reforms that will save Medicare money by getting rid of wasteful spending in the health care system – reforms that will not touch your Medicare benefits – not by a dime."
The House has passed the Ryan budget twice, but the blueprint went nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
But if Romney wins in November and Republicans seize control of the Senate, the budget could be implemented. The blueprint slashes spending for safety-net programs for the poor, remakes Medicare and cuts personal and corporate taxes while pushing the deficit down to a manageable level over a decade.
Democratic candidates have been linking GOP incumbents who voted for the Ryan budget to the vice presidential candidate and his blueprint.
"The Ryan-Bass Plan would end Medicare as we know it and gut the key investments we need to grow the economy and strengthen the middle class – all in order to pay for massive new tax cuts for millionaires, big oil companies, and corporations that ship jobs overseas," Annie Kuster, a Democrat looking to unseat Republican Rep. Charles Bass of New Hampshire, said Wednesday.
Separately, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., sent a memo to Democrats urging them to challenge Ryan's claim that he is a deficit hawk and repeatedly link Romney to the Ryan budget in its entirety.
Schumer cited Ryan's vote for President George W. Bush's tax cuts, his support for two unfunded wars and his vote against the deficit reduction plan proposed by former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles.
"The dirty little secret about the Ryan plan is that it inflicts its damage to Medicare without achieving its stated purpose of reducing the debt," Schumer wrote.