WASHINGTON — The intensifying debate on Capitol Hill over the national debt has seemed abstract for many Americans, with incomprehensibly big numbers and concepts. But throw Medicare into the mix and suddenly it's a lot more personal.
House Republicans whipped up a storm last week by voting on a budget plan that includes a plan to turn Medicare over to private companies. This week the debate morphed into open political warfare.
Radio ads are playing in Florida and other key states, a sure sign that the 2012 election battle is under way. Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi flew to Orlando on Monday to tell a group of seniors, "We're not going to let this happen."
Despite Pelosi's implied threat, the GOP plan would not affect the 60 people who were in attendance. Republicans — assuming they can get the plan adopted — say it would not affect anyone who is now aged 55 or older.
But elections are not won with nuance. Democrats are hoping for a voter backlash similar to the furor that followed the Republican attempt in 2005 to privatize Social Security — an issue that helped put Pelosi into the speaker's office.
"From a political standpoint, Medicare reform is very dangerous territory," analyst Charlie Cook wrote in the National Journal in advance of Republican approval of the 10-year budget blueprint that contained the Medicare overhaul. (It would contribute to an overall $5.8 trillion in spending cuts.) "House Republicans are not just pushing the envelope — they are soaking it with lighter fluid and waving a match at it."
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week showed 78 percent of Americans oppose cutting spending on Medicare as a way to trim the debt, currently at more than $14 trillion. The poll should send chills through Republicans in districts with many seniors or those with a healthy percentage of Democratic voters.
But the GOP showed remarkable discipline, all but four House members voting for the budget plan.
"Medicare does not have a future under the status quo or under the limp proposals put forward by the (Obama) administration and business-as-usual Washington liberals," Rep. Dan Webster of Winter Garden said after the vote.
The plan, designed by Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, "saves Medicare for future generations while ensuring that current recipients will not see a single change to their current benefit or coverage," Webster said.
The Republican proposal would convert Medicare from a defined benefit plan to one of "premium support" payments. Seniors would be given money to buy coverage from the private market, though providers would have to meet government standards. The plan also gradually increases the eligibility age to 67 from 65.
The plan would curb the growth of Medicare, experts agree. But seniors would have to pay about $6,400 more than if the program were not changed, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
"It says instead of guaranteed health care, you will get a voucher," President Barack Obama said in a speech last week. "And if that voucher isn't worth enough to buy insurance, tough luck — you're on your own."
The president, however, acknowledged Medicare's growing burden (now 15 percent of the total federal budget) and outlined ways to curb spending without passing on costs to seniors. He proposes curbing prescription drug prices and creating an independent payment advisory board.
Republicans dismissed Obama's response as hazy and not serious. Even some Democrats are not wild about the independent panel or tinkering with Medicare. What's clear is the issue has leaped to the forefront of the political debate.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee struck first on Tuesday, by saying it was launching radio ads in key districts, including many in Florida.
The investment was miniscule — $340 for a 15-second radio ad in Rep. C.W. Bill Young's district in Tampa Bay — and mocked by Republicans. But it signaled the party intends to ride the issue. Democrats returned to their districts this week to criticize the plan at town hall meetings.
"Sometimes you use a screwdriver and you turn it a little bit and other times you use a sledgehammer," Rep. Steve Israel of New York, who heads the DCCC, said of the ads. "We'll use different tools at different times between now and November 2012."
Israel accused Republicans of hypocrisy, noting how they spent tens of millions on TV time in the last election harping on a Democratic move to cut Medicare as part of reforms in the new health care law.
In North Florida, an ad by challenger Steve Southerland showed a man squeezing an orange as a narrator said incumbent Democratic Rep. Allen Boyd voted "to cut Medicare by $500 billion dollars."
Boyd lost his bid for an eighth term and Democrats lost control of the House. Seniors favored Republicans by more than 20 percent over Democrats in the midterm elections, a major shift, with many citing the Medicare issue.
Now the heat turns back to Republicans. "Tell Young to keep his hands off our Medicare," goes the ad in Tampa Bay.
Young said he stands by his vote while adding there is enough time to make adjustments. He said once the Medicare plan is explained, "very few" people object.
Coming to Young's defense and 38 other Republicans across the country was the 60 Plus Association, which casts itself as the conservative alternative to AARP. The group on Thursday began running 1-minute radio ads thanking the lawmakers for preserving Medicare "for years to come." Its budget, said to be $800,000, dwarfs the Democrats' effort.
Rep. Gus Bilirakis, also from Tampa Bay, is in a Republican district and did not draw one of the ads. But he was on the offensive this week, visiting Coral Oaks senior center in Palm Harbor to explain the plan would not affect current beneficiaries.
Asked if it was fair to ask future retirees to pay more for their coverage, Bilirakis replied instead that reforms are needed. "Our constituents keep telling us, 'Be honest with us,' " Bilirakis said. "The facts are, for future generations, it's not sustainable. We're trying to save Medicare."