WASHINGTON – After months on the political defensive, Democrats are convinced their fortunes have turned, and the reason can be summed up in a single word: Medicare.
By swiping a reliably Republican congressional seat in upstate New York – after making Medicare the central issue in the campaign – Democrats underscored, again, a truism of American politics: Voters are all in favor of spending cuts and hard choices, so long as someone else is swallowing the bitter pill.
Less than a day after Kathy Hochul upset Republican Jane Corwin in a three-way race, Democrats in the Senate sought to extend their political advantage by calling a vote on the House GOP budget plan, which included a proposal to eventually convert Medicare into a voucher system. Five Republicans joined the unified Democrats in rejecting the plan on a 57-40 vote.
The vote essentially ends the legislative hopes for the fiscal blueprint drafted by GOP Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the House Budget Committee chairman.
But the plan is likely to find a second life well into the 2012 election, defining policy differences between the two parties.
“Their Republican, radical proposal would end Medicare as we know it,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairman of the party’s campaign committee. “We’re not going to stop talking about this in states across the country.”
The GOP budget would cut nearly $6 trillion over the next decade and revamp Medicare by giving the next generation of seniors a set amount of money to buy health insurance policies on the private market rather than guaranteeing health coverage.
Republicans voting against the GOP budget were Sens. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Rand Paul of Kentucky. Paul, a tea party favorite, opposed the plan from the right since it doesn’t actually balance the budget and would add trillions of dollars to the U.S. debt.
Hochul’s victory in New York was the best political news in months for Democrats, who were voted out of power in the House and lost seats in the Senate last year in what President Barack Obama memorably dubbed a shellacking. She gained 47 percent of the vote, to 43 percent for Corwin and 9 percent for Jack Davis, a former Democrat who ran as a tea party contender.
It is easy to overstate the importance of any single election, especially an off-year contest like the one Tuesday in the suburbs of Rochester and Buffalo. Politically speaking, November 2012 is light-years away.
But as the glee among Democrats and the worry among Republicans indicated Wednesday, the momentum the GOP enjoyed after last November’s crushing midterm performance has come to a dead halt.
More significantly, Hochul’s victory put a fine point on tensions within the GOP, between the need to appease budget-slashing “tea partiers” while holding the crucial support of independent and older voters. Both appeared to turn away from Corwin in the last days of the campaign.
Several dozen congressional Republicans are running in competitive contests next year, and they face perhaps the greatest peril. All but four House members voted for the Ryan budget blueprint that includes the controversial Medicare plan.
The proposal was destined to fail in a divided Congress. But the Medicare issue soon spilled into the GOP presidential race, with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich forced to apologize after knocking Ryan’s plan. Other Republican hopefuls have embraced the proposal to varying degrees.
“That may be good for their tea party positioning,” said Bill Burton, a former White House spokesman running an independent Democratic expenditure campaign,” “but it’s not where the American people are.”
The New York congressional seat was one that Republicans held for years. It came open earlier this year when Rep. Christopher Lee, who is married, resigned after being caught sending a shirtless photo of himself to a potential date via Craigslist.
The two major parties and their political allies poured millions of dollars into the contest, turning it into a testing ground for 2012 themes and strategies.
With their victory, Democrats now need 24 seats to reclaim a House majority. Democrats have targeted 61 districts won by Obama but held by Republicans.
Next up is a July election to fill the seat of former Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., which seems likely to stay in Democratic hands. A third special election in Nevada in September is expected to be more competitive; to the relief of many in the GOP, former state Assemblywoman Sharron Angle, who waged a bumbling campaign last year against Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, announced Wednesday she would not run.
But that was a rare bit of good new for Republicans, who worked to contain the political damage from Tuesday night’s loss. They cited the unusual circumstances, noting the contest was a three-way race among a Democrat, a Republican and a former Democrat running on the tea party line, and suggested Hochul’s 47 percent support was hardly a ringing mandate.
Ryan tried to shift the focus to Democrats’ lack of a Medicare alternative. “Democrats have chosen to shamelessly distort and demagogue the issue to try to scare seniors,” he said in an interview. “We have a year and half to get the facts out. I’m very confident of that.”