WASHINGTON -- Democrats who are staking the 2012 election in part on the charge that Republicans will "end Medicare as we know it" likely will join in on that transformation once the election is over, according to high-powered lobbyist John Breaux, a Democrat and former senator from Louisiana.
"You're going to have to get past Nov. 5 or whenever the election is," Breaux told reporters after a Friday House hearing on "premium support," which is at the heart of Republican Rep. Paul Ryan's Medicare reform plan -- that Democrats equate with ending Medicare.
It's not that Breaux, whose clients at Patton Boggs include health care companies, doesn't understand the Democratic postion. The day before testifying, Breaux met with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, who sparked his party's ire by advocating Ryan's premium support vision in a white paper.
"Listen, I talked to Ron Wyden yesterday," Breaux recounted. "He said, 'Don't get shot over there.'"
In a Medicare system with premium support, the government would tell seniors to find insurance plans on their own in the private market; the government would pay the bulk of the premiums. Under Ryan's 2011 budget offering, that model would have hiked out-of-pocket costs for seniors by more than $6,000. And since his plan would have shifted all new Medicare recipients to the private market in 10 years, Democrats charged he was trying to end Medicare. Ryan's 2012 version is similar but also would allow people the option of staying with traditional Medicare.
Progressives are increasingly concerned that others in the Democratic Party will embrace that and additional ideas promoted by Ryan to cut the budget deficit. Indeed, the latest Ryan Medicare plan is championed not just by Breaux but by another influential Democrat, Alice Rivlin, the former head of the White House's Office of the Management and Budget in the Clinton administration.
Rivlin, who also testified Friday, recently told The Huffington Post that Democrats "are lying, not to put too fine a point on it," when they say that premium support will end Medicare. Her vision (watch her explain it here), like Breaux's, includes aggressive oversight meant to ensure Medicare survives.
Opponents think oversight will not work and that healthier people inevitably will gravitate toward private plans, no matter what risk adjustments or blocks are built in to bar private plans from "cherry picking." That would leave Medicare with sicker, older beneficiaries, with costlier conditions, leading to its eventual collapse, they believe.
To be sure, many Democrats still feel that way and will not go along with such a plan. but Breaux, whose trip to Capitol Hill Friday included talks with senators, doesn't think opposition from the left will win out. He said based on his talks with lawmakers -- and based on the subdued tone of Friday's hearing in which Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) was the only lawmaker to passionately decry (watch here) privatized Medicare -- he thinks the rhetoric is cooling and that in the end centrists will prevail.
"A number of them are starting to think in terms of moving to a different delivery system," Breaux said, noting that the current Democratic talking point poses a hurdle. "They gotta get away from 'ending Medicare' -- talk about a different delivery system, for God's sakes, a better delivery system, more competition, better prices, better quality."
Breaux thought the process of adopting premium support would move quickly if the Republicans won the Senate and White House, which he deemed unlikely. But he said it could still advance with a divided government.
"You're not going to get anything in the atmosphere we have now, but I think it's very important to do the prep work now so that perhaps in the new Congress -- I don't think they can do it in lame duck -- but certainly in the new Congress, that all of this discussion will lead to an agreement between the two parties to do it together," Breaux said.
"The further away from an election, the easier it is to compromise. And right now we're only less than 200 days away -- makes it much more difficult to reach an agreement," Breaux said. "So when you start off in January, you've at least got two years before the next congressional races; so that's the window of opportunity."
Asked if he thought a sufficient number of Democrats in the Senate could be persuaded (10 to 13 of them would be needed to break a filibuster, assuming that the Democrats resume control), Breaux suggested they could. "That's not all of them; that sounds like a small percentage," he said, pointing to some moderates in the upper chamber. "They got some folks in the Finance Committee, I think, that fit that bill."
"People are starting to realize that you have to start in the center," Breaux added. "I'm hearing talk from members about that; I think they're open. Max Baucus on the Senate Finance Committee is a type of centrist that can help put together a deal like this. And Orrin Hatch, after the elections."
Michael McAuliff covers politics and Congress for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.