By Donna Smith
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats sharpened their attack on Monday against a Republican plan to overhaul Medicare as they prepared to force their opponents to vote on the unpopular proposal to privatize the health program for the elderly.
Senate leader Harry Reid plans a vote this week on the Republican budget proposal, which would end traditional fee-for-service Medicare for future retirees and instead provide them with a voucher to purchase federally subsidized medical plans from private insurers.
"The Republican plan would shatter a cornerstone of our society, and would break our promise to the elderly and the sick," Reid said in a Senate speech.
"It would turn over seniors' health to profit-hungry insurance companies. It would let bureaucrats decide what tests and treatments seniors get."
Polls show the proposal is disliked, particularly among independents and the elderly whose support will be crucial to candidates in next year's presidential and congressional elections. Democrats are eager to put Senate Republicans on the record on the proposal, which passed the Republican-controlled House of Representatives last month.
Congressional aides said a vote on the House Republicans' 2012 budget proposal, which includes the Medicare plan, would most likely take place on Thursday.
Republican Senator Scott Brown, who faces a tough re-election bid next year in Democratic-dominated Massachusetts, said he will vote against the plan. In an opinion article published in Monday's Politico newspaper, Brown said he feared it would lead to higher premiums, deductibles and co-payments for the elderly.
MOVING THE ELECTION NEEDLE
Medicare is dominating a special election in New York where a Democrat stands a good chance on Tuesday of winning an empty House seat in a solidly Republican district.
"Make no doubt about it, the issue moving the needle is Medicare," said Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat. He said polls show Medicare is the top issue for voters in the election.
House Republican leader Eric Cantor rejected that analysis. The election is not being driven by Medicare but rather reflects a three-way race among Republican Jane Corwin, Democrat Kathy Hochul, and Jack Davis, who claims Tea Party ties, he said.
Cantor and other Republicans are trying to turn the issue around, arguing that President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats opposed to the Ryan proposal are failing to save Medicare. The program faces increasing financial difficulties from rising healthcare costs and the aging 77 million-strong Baby Boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964.
"The administration has dismissed our plan out of hand," Cantor told reporters. "We say to them, the status quo is unacceptable and that if you accept the status quo, you're calling for bankruptcy of the Medicare program."
The dispute over Medicare is unlikely to be resolved in budget talks between the White House and Democratic and Republican congressional leaders, political analysts said. Those talks are aimed at producing a deficit reduction plan to clear the way for Congress to raise the $14.3 trillion credit limit in order to avoid a default on U.S. debt.
Democrats appear unwilling to give ground on Medicare in the budget negotiations despite suggestions over the weekend by Ryan and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell that they would be open to compromise on the issue.
Analysts see the two parties battling over Medicare through next year's election when Democrats hope to reverse gains made by Republicans in last year's congressional election. All 435 House seats, 33 of the Senate's 100 seats, and the White House will be up for election in November 2012.
Those gains in large part were made by voters upset with Obama's healthcare overhaul that cut some $500 billion in Medicare spending.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)