Senate Democrats can positively taste the votes of seniors coming back their way in 2012, counting on an elderly backlash to a House Republican plan to overhaul Medicare over the next decade by providing premium support for beneficiaries to buy insurance in the private sector.
To hear the Senate's number three Democrat, Chuck Schumer of New York, tell it, those votes, which went dramatically to the GOP in 2010 when they retook the House, are practically locked up, as he happily quoted from a new poll out from the Associated Press. By a wide margin, 54 to 33, voters said they trusted Democrats over Republicans to handle the government health care program for seniors.
"This issue will have staying power and be a defining issue for 2012. And in the Senate...we will exhibit this issue as an example of why we need to keep the Senate Democratic in order to counter House Republicans," predicted Schumer, the former two-term head of his caucus' re-election campaign. "We will point to this week and say, 'Republicans tried to end Medicare, but a Democratic majority stopped it in the Senate. It's that simple. It's powerful."
Fox's own poll a week ago showed similar opposition to changing the elder health care plan. When asked what registered voters would prefer to cut when trying to balance the budget, 54% said national security and defense, as opposed to 22% who chose Social Security and Medicare.
Senate Democratic leaders are looking to hold a vote as early as Wednesday on the plan put forward by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a blueprint that contains the suggested Medicare changes. Republicans say they will counter with not only a vote on President Obama's $3.7 trillion budget, which cuts only $1.1 trillion from the deficit over 10 years while raising taxes on the so-called wealthy, but also possibly a vote on two different budgets put forward by conservatives that balance within a decade if not sooner.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., launched his own withering attack on the Ryan budget Monday, charging that the plan will "shatter a cornerstone of our society and would break our promise to the elderly and to the sick. It would turn our seniors' health to profit-hungry insurance companies, would let bureaucrats decide what tests and treatments seniors get, and it would ask seniors to pay more for health care in exchange for fewer benefits."
One senior Republican scoffed at the Democrats' effort, though he did indicate that Republicans should support the Ryan budget knowing that it is merely a blueprint and can be changed moving forward.
"I will vote for the Ryan budget. I will advocate for the Ryan budget," Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., told reporters, saying his colleagues who are up for re-election, unlike Kyl who plans to retire in 2012, need not be worried. "I think the reason it received such overwhelming support from House Republicans is that, even though every one of them might not agree with every jot and tittle of the budget, they understand it as an aspirational document that tells us where we need to get eventually with ideas about how to do it. But those ideas don't necessarily lock you into any specific prescription."
Sen. Jeff Sessions, top Republican on the Budget Committee, accused Democrats of ducking.
"It appears that the leaders of the Senate would prefer to hide in the hills and take shots at Republicans from the distance? Is that what they prefer?" Sessions asked, accusing Reid of "wasting the American people's time" with the Ryan vote and called the Obama budget "a stunning failure." The Alabama Republican urged support for the Ryan plan, which he admitted was "not perfect, but said it will "get this country out of a looming, Greek-like debt crisis, make our economy more competitive, save Medicare for future generations. It's an honest, courageous plan."
But not all Republicans agreed.
Saying "seniors should not have to bear a disproportionate burden" of cost-cutting measures as lawmakers attempt to slash the country's rising debt, Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., up for re-election in a blue state that famously provides universal health care to its citizens, basically threw the Ryan plan under the proverbial bus on Monday.
"I fear that as health inflation rises, the cost of private plans will outgrow the government premium support - and the elderly will be forced to pay ever higher deductibles and co-pays," Ryan said in an op-ed in Politico. "Protecting those who have been counting on the current system their entire adult lives should be the key principle of reform."
Though Senate Democrats say they intend to put forward a budget blueprint of their own this year, they recently deferred offering their own plan for now, according to Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-ND, "because of the high-level bipartisan leadership negotiations that are currently underway. The results of those negotiations may need to be included in a budget resolution that would be offered in the weeks ahead."
Schumer could offer no further clarification to reporters on Monday, saying only, "Right now what's getting in the way is this Ryan plan." The New York Democrat said it was necessary to prove that the votes are not there for the GOP budget.
Indeed, the votes are not expected to be there for any partisan plan from either side.
Sessions has threatened to keep the Senate from heading out on Friday for the week-long Memorial Day recess, saying he will require that his colleagues vote on whether or not to adjourn. It's a vote that requires only a simple majority, but it seemed as if Sessions was more concerned about the message than a win on a vote tally.
"If we're going to close down this chamber for another week without having produced a budget, without having even scheduled a committee hearing, then I'm going to require that we have a vote," Sessions warned. "Let's vote to go home not having done the people's business."