Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- Reports coming in from congressional town hall meetings during the Easter recess say that Republican lawmakers were peppered with angry questions about cutting Medicare. GOP lawmakers, who toppled House Democrats from power on the issue of reducing the size and cost of government to erase the budget deficit and slay a $14 trillion debt, now find themselves on the defensive on the one program Americans do not want cut.

The battle over cutting spending is one of the GOP's strongest issues, and one of the weakest for big spending Democrats and the biggest spender of them all, President Obama. But the Republicans passed a sweeping budget-cutting blueprint this month (that is, a guideline for the appropriations process to follow) that includes a redesign of Medicare that would not affect anyone over the age of 55.

Medicare spends nearly $600 billion on health care benefits and its costs are growing at an unsustainable rate. Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin wants to change it into a market-oriented program where people can shop for the most affordable health care plans available that would in part be subsidized by the federal government.

That plan is going nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate, but it has unfairly defined the Republicans' otherwise' worthy proposals to cut government spending across the board. And it has given the Democrats the issue they've been praying for in the critical 2012 election cycle that they will demagogue to death in their all-out campaign to win back many of the seats they lost last November.

The liberal Huffington Post website last week filed reports from the town meetings that showed growing opposition to the Medicare plan. Republican Rep. Robert Dold of Illinois "couldn't even get to the end of his presentation (in Buffalo Grove) before audience members began peppering him with questions about the Ryan budget," the Post reported.

"Some in the audience then told Dold they don't like the idea in the Ryan budget plan of Medicare becoming a voucher program that makes senior citizens buy private health insurance about 10 years from now," the Post said.

Ryan is a smart guy and he surely knew from the beginning that just the idea of touching Medicare would ignite a torrent of opposition from seniors and those who are approaching retirement years, even if they are not affected by the reforms.

He also must have known that Democrats would fiercely attack any GOP plan to change Medicare. Indeed, they have begun doing so, running ads against vulnerable House Republicans who voted to send the budget plan to the Senate.

Unlike the packed town hall meetings in 2009 where voters ganged up on Obama and the Democrats over health care, this time they're ganging up on Republicans. In a Carbon County forum, Rep. Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania faced an emotional audience. "What you're doing with this Ryan budget is you're taking Medicare and changing it from a guaranteed health care system to one that is a voucher system where you throw seniors on the mercy of for-profit insurance companies," one woman told him.

Republican strategists were wary of the Ryan Medicare plan from the beginning, warning House leaders of the political repercussions to follow.

"I think it is a dangerous political exercise," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told the New York Times earlier this month. "This is not something that Republicans can afford to handle lightly."

This doesn't mean that Medicare does not need to be reformed to make it financially sustainable over the long term. But it is clearly a highly flammable issue that can only move forward by developing bipartisan support for needed reforms, and that means dealing with it on a separate budget track, perhaps under a special House-Senate panel to come up with changes that can pass Congress.

Going out on a limb and passing a plan that only the Republicans will vote for, as happened in the House, was not smart politically, nor good legislative strategy.

But at least Republicans had the courage of their convictions and have put forward a $6 trillion budget-cutting plan (that does not raise taxes) for fiscal year 2012, something the Democrats did not do in fiscal year 2011 when they had huge majorities.

House Democrats did offer an alternative budget that would raise taxes by $2 trillion, a plan Democrats say would mean slapping the middle class with higher taxes.

Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly of Virginia, who narrowly won re-election to a second term by promising to support extension of the Bush tax cuts, seems to have changed his mind about taxing his middle-income constituents.

"I do not favor the permanent extension of that tax cut [for those in the top two brackets], and frankly, I think we've got to look at whether we can afford the middle-class tax cut permanently," Connolly told reporters.

If you are looking for a quick resolution to the budget crisis, don't hold your breath. Obama "has no plan to balance the budget -- ever," writes Washington Post economist Robert J. Samuelson. At this writing, Senate Democrats don't have one, either.

House Republicans passed a credible budget in a party line vote that surely passes any fiscal test, but it is unnecessarily mired in the politics of Medicare that needs to be dealt with on a separate track.


Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.