Medicare swiftly emerging as key issue in Missouri's 2012 Senate contest
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 26, 2011 - Less that 24 hours after Medicare helped elect a Democrat to Congress from a traditionally Republican district in New York, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., was on Facebook declaring her commitment to the program and issuing an email to supporters that called the Republican plan to revamp it "offensive."
Within two hours, the National Republican Senatorial Committee struck back by resurrecting the GOP's longstanding contention that the Democratic health-care law passed in 2010 -- with McCaskill casting the deciding vote -- was the real threat to the program that provides health-care coverage to Americans age 65 and over. The Republicans also defended the GOP plan to transform Medicare into a voucher program for people now under 55.
Back on Facebook, McCaskill's post had generated close to 500 comments by midnight -- and virtually all were supportive of her stance.
She also fired off a strongly worded e-blast Wednesday to thousands of supporters, declaring her plan to vote against the Republican proposal later Wednesday when the issue was brought up on the Senate floor. (The plan was defeated, 57-40, with four Republicans joining 53 Democrats.)
Wednesday's back-and-forth highlights the political power of the Medicare issue and the likely prospect -- at least, for the moment -- that it will play a starring role in Missouri's 2012 U.S. Senate contest, already cited as among the nation's most competitive.
U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Town and Country, who announced his Republican bid to oust McCaskill last week, has been an outspoken advocate of the budget plan -- including the voucher proposal for Medicare -- espoused by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis.
Akin reaffirmed his stance at his kickoff last week, saying that the free market, less government regulation and more personal responsibility were the best ways to counter the rising costs of health care and health insurance.
The other announced Republican, former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman issued this morning her first statement on the topic:
"Paul Ryan has done one thing that Barack Obama and Claire McCaskill refuse to do: start a discussion on how we fix an entitlement system headed for disaster," Steelman said. "In the Senate, I'm going to focus on kicking off a new era of strong job growth because a booming national economy will do more to fix our entitlement problems than almost any other single step we can take. Cutting corporate taxes, regulations and eliminating obstacles to entrepreneurship are a surer path to growth than more bailouts, stimulus and regulation."
Steelman continued, "I'm committed to protecting Medicare and Social Security for our retirees and those who are approaching retirement, and in the coming weeks I'll be making specific proposals on entitlement reform that improve on the discussion the Ryan plan started. I have opposed the Obama-McCaskill $500 billion in Medicare cuts...and unfortunately, they're still in the Ryan plan. Borrowing trillions more from the Chinese, raiding the Social Security trust fund and ignoring the coming bankruptcy of Medicare is the Obama-McCaskill plan."
McCaskill's swift action, shortly after New York Democrat Kathy Hochul's victory, signals that McCaskill sees the Medicare debate as a boost for her re-election bid. She quickly used it to illustrate her philosophical differences with her GOP rivals.
In her electronic missive to supporters, McCaskill asserted the Ryan plan "ends Medicare as we know it and gives tax cuts to multimillionaires. It's offensive. It's unacceptable."
She continued: "The plan would force seniors to pay more than double for health care out of pocket -- in Missouri alone, $50 million more yearly for prescription drugs and $2.3 million more for wellness -- and cut taxes on the wealthiest Americans to the lowest levels in 80 years."
McCaskill, who also has been promoting herself as a fiscal conservative, then sought to stake out a middle ground:
"I believe a good compromise would be one that includes the following:
- preservation of Medicare as we know it
- protection of Social Security
- spending cuts that include discretionary domestic and defense spending
- safeguards that protect our nation's veterans
- additional revenues from multimillionaires and removal of tax goodies like subsidies to Big Oil."
The NRSC fired back within hours by issuing a press release with a massive, take-no-prisoners headline: "McCaskill Is Only Candidate For Senate In Missouri Who Voted For Law That Rations Health Care, Cuts Medicare."
The Senate Republicans' chief political arm focused on McCaskill's aforementioned email, contending that she "once again attempted to score cheap political points by scaring seniors as she disingenuously claimed that she is 'protecting Medicare from Republican attacks' by voting against reforms that would protect Medicare for current seniors and strengthen the program for future generations."
NRSC asserted that "McCaskill and her fellow Washington Democrats continue to demagogue the important issue of Medicare refor," and play down the health insurance changes advocated by President Barack Obama and approved by congressional Democrats then in control of the House and the Senate.
The changes include targeted trims in the growth of Medicare by $500 billion over the next 10 years. The NRSC contends such cuts "will ration health care." (McCaskill says the savings come largely from program changes that provide free preventive services to address illnesses early on, thus saving money.)
Republicans dispute such Democratic claims and hope to put McCaskill and her fellow Democrats on the defensive. "Despite her untimely political posturing, voters know Claire McCaskill voted for ObamaCare, which rations health care for seniors and cuts Medicare by $500 billion," said NRSC spokesman Chris Bond. "Sen. McCaskill's decision to ignore Missouri voters and cast the deciding 60th vote for ObamaCare's tax hikes and Medicare cuts will be a key issue as she prepares to face voters at the polls next year."
Wednesday likely was just an opening scuffle in a 17-month battle over Medicare between McCaskill and the Republicans, leading up to the November 2012 election.
Missourians -- like their voting counterparts in other key states -- should prepare for a verbal and visual onslaught.