Washington voters are leery of reducing Medicare spending to keep the system from going bankrupt - an attitude that could spell trouble for Republicans in upcoming congressional elections.
Nearly half of the likely voters surveyed in a new scientific survey said the federal government should not make any major changes in Medicare, the nation’s health insurance program for senior citizens.
Only one in three agreed that Congress and the president “should reduce the rate of increases in spending and restrict some benefits to keep Medicare from going bankrupt.”
That generally describes a plan approved by Republicans in Congress and vetoed by President Clinton last year. It has been the source of campaign rhetoric ever since.
“The Republicans over-projected. People don’t want massive changes,” said analyst Del Ali of Political/ Media Research, which took the Sounding Out Washington poll last Thursday through Sunday for The Spokesman-Review and KHQ-TV.
U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, representing the 5th Congressional District, is among the Republicans being criticized for supporting the GOPpassed plan. The AFL-CIO is spending tens of thousands of dollars on television commercials that charge Nethercutt with cutting Medicare.
For months, he has countered that Republicans did not try to cut the program but instead merely tried to slow the rate of growth.
In travels around Eastern Washington, Nethercutt said, he finds support for the GOP plan if he has enough time to explain it. Voters who said they don’t want Medicare to change may not realize the program faces financial problems, he said.
“If they knew it was going broke, they might agree to changes,” he said. “It takes a half an hour to explain it and three seconds to criticize it.”
So persistent are the televised attacks that Nethercutt recently responded with a commercial featuring his own mother. Nancy Nethercutt, who is on Medicare, recently underwent a five-way heart bypass operation. Because of that, Nethercutt explains in the 30-second commercial, he understands the importance of Medicare and would never cut it.
Judy Olson, one of Nethercutt’s Democratic opponents, contended the freshman congressman “is a bit disingenuous when he says he’s not cutting Medicare.”
The commercial does not mention that the number of Medicare recipients will increase during the period the Republicans want to reduce the growth in spending, she said.
Those two things together amount to a cut in funding for future benefits, she argued.
“We have to remember our primary concern is the covenant we have with seniors who are relying on this program,” Olson said.
The poll, with 46 percent saying to leave Medicare as it is, shows the Republicans are out of touch, she said.
Don McCloskey, another Democrat challenging Nethercutt, said Medicare wouldn’t be such a divisive issue if politicians would drop the rhetoric and engage in a serious discussion.
He suggested congressional leaders from both parties meet privately to fashion a solution, then take the time to explain it.
“If they make it more than statistics, we will make choices,” McCloskey said.
Sue Kaun, the third Democrat opposing Nethercutt, said she supports a special commission, similar to the one that decided which military bases should be closed, to propose needed changes to Medicare.
“I think there’s a sense that Medicare’s going bankrupt,” she said.
Kaun believes a commission could find some savings by targeting fraud and waste. If it believes a tax increase is needed to keep the current system, “we should have a national dialogue to start talking about why,” she said.
Republicans could face a backlash over Medicare this year, much the same as Democrats faced in 1994 over a failed plan to overhaul the nation’s health care system, Ali said.
“Both parties are well-intentioned when they take power,” he said. “But once you offer specifics … someone’s going to have to suffer and no one’s willing to do it.”
Democrats seem to be content to pick up votes the way Republicans did in 1994, by criticizing a failed plan, Ali said. But there’s a problem if that’s successful.
“They don’t have any alternatives, and they’re going to be in the same boat as the Republicans are now, in 1998.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: The importance of Medicare
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Change in plans Hurricane Fran forced The Spokesman-Review and KHQ-TV to make changes in their political coverage this week. The newspaper and television station, which sponsor the Sounding Washington survey, originally planned to report today on the 5th Congressional District race. The hurricane, however, knocked out power to parts of the East Coast, including the suburban Washington, D.C., areas where the pollsters, Political/Media Research, have their headquarters. The power outage occurred after the statewide poll was complete, but before enough voters in Eastern Washington could be contacted to provide scientifically valid results for the congressional race, analyst Del Ali said. That poll is continuing, and the results will be reported Thursday morning in The Spokesman-Review and Wednesday evening on KHQ.