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National Democrats seek to redirect political attention back to Medicare

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 8, 2011 - In an effort to shift the public's attention back to Medicare, the national Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is launching a new online campaign "demanding that Sarah Steelman and Todd Akin tell GOP leaders in Washington to take the Republican plan to end Medicare off the table in ongoing debt-ceiling negotiations."

Akin, a Republican congressman from Wildwood, and Steelman, a former state treasurer, are the GOP's two announced candidates competing for the right in 2012 to challenge U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

The campaign committee's online effort is aimed at linking Akin and Steelman to the House-passed budget proposal of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., who advocates transforming Medicare into a voucher program for people now are under age 55.

The new online campaign also may be aimed at redirecting the public's attention from unrelated controversies that aren't as advantageous to Democrats.

The DSCC says in a statement slated to go out today that "Republican leaders refuse to abandon their extreme plan to end Medicare to pay for tax breaks for millionaires and subsidies for oil companies. Instead, Republicans are holding the fragile economic recovery hostage to advance their dangerous plan for Medicare."

Akin voted in favor of Ryan's plan, saying that it reflects a free-market approach that Akin believes is the best way to encourage lower health-care costs. Steelman has said that she disagrees with parts of Ryan's approach, although she has yet to lay out most of the details. (To keep peace with fellow Republicans, Steelman does praise Ryan for his "courage'' in offering a plan.)

In any case, the DSCC says that its online effort "will mobilize thousands of activists and call on Steelman and Akin to tell the Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell and other Washington Republicans that their extreme plan to end Medicare is a non-starter. As part of the campaign, the DSCC will be using a wide array of online tools to mobilize thousands of online activists, including launching a series of online ads specifically designed to reach Missourians."

Among other things, national Democrats contend that the Ryan plan would increase out-of-pocket costs in 2022 for the typical 65 year-old Missourian by $6,568. More immediately, Democrats assert that the plan's reductions in prescription-drug benefits would affect 89,500 Missourians who "would pay $50 million more."

The DSCC also attacks Ryan's cuts in Medicaid, health insurance for the poor, by highlighting its effects on the elderly in nursing homes. "In Missouri, the Republican plan could cut $9.8 billion in federal health care funding for seniors and the disabled through Medicaid, including life-saving nursing home care," the political group says.

Attacks on McCaskill

Meanwhile, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has countered with steady attacks against McCaskill on two fronts: Medicare and the federal budget.

Congress has been unable to agree on a budget for more than a year, largely because of a partisan stalemate in the Senate. (The House passed budgets while under Democratic and Republican control, but they died in the Senate.)

On Medicare, national Republicans continue to attack McCaskill over her support of the health insurance law, approved by Congress in 2010 and signed by President Barack Obama, that calls for $500 billion in Medicare savings over the next decade. Democrats say most of the savings would come from making the program more efficient, but Republican attacks on those cuts helped fuel last fall's GOP victories at the polls.

McCaskill -- and Steelman -- have both noted that Ryan's budget plan also relies on the $500 billion in savings, in addition to his other proposed changes.

McCaskill told Beacon Washington correspondent Rob Koenig on Tuesday that she is sticking with her belief that Medicare needs to be tweaked, just not in the way that Ryan has proposed. She earlier has called for means-testing, which would increase Medicare premiums or reduce benefits for higher-income Americans.

"There should be other approaches," she said. "We're going to have to work on Medicare. I just do not believe we can shift the higher costs of medical care, we cannot shift all of the liability for those costs onto the backs of seniors. And that's essentially what the Ryan plan says."

McCaskill is a co-signer of a Democratic letter to Vice President Joe Biden, who is leading budget/debt ceiling talks aimed at reaching a compromise. The letter called for Biden to stand firm against the Ryan proposal.

But McCaskill emphasized Monday that while she opposes the Ryan plan, she still believes that "Medicare has to be on the table" as the two sides debate how to reduce the federal deficit.

"We cannot get where we need to be, in terms of our fiscal health in this country [unless] all of the entitlement programs, all of the spending -- including defense spending and revenue -- all of that has to be on the table," McCaskill said.

Such nuance, by McCaskill or her Republican rivals, may be more difficult for their national-party allies to characterize. Which leads back to more attacks.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.