By Tim Reid
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A Democratic victory in a reliably Republican House of Representatives district this week has lawmakers running scared from reforming Medicare, greatly reducing chances of a comprehensive deal to cut the long-term deficit.
Rarely in recent years has a single, off-year special election -- like the one on Tuesday in a House district in upstate New York -- triggered such nationwide political tremors, or had such negative implications for efforts to bring America's federal debt under control.
Democrat Kathy Hochul won in a solidly Republican district after hammering her opponent for backing a Republican plan in the House to scale back Medicare costs. Medicare is a federal government program that is the biggest single driver of the U.S. deficit, but most voters want it left untouched.
Without a sincere effort to curb the growth of Medicare, which provides health insurance to 47 million elderly and disabled Americans, it will run short of money within 13 years.
Left unchanged, Medicare, the Social Security retirement program and the Medicaid federal-state health insurance program for the poor would devour 100 percent of all tax revenues by 2047, according to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office.
Republicans recaptured control of the House in 2010 in part by accusing Democrats of wanting to slash Medicare and interfere with the doctor-patient relationship under the healthcare reform law signed last year by President Barack Obama. The law often is derided by opponents as "Obamacare."
Democrats believe the political tables have been turned.
At issue is a Republican proposal put forward in April by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan that would fundamentally reshape Medicare by turning it into an arrangement in which elderly people receive government vouchers to help them pay for private health insurance.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that Ryan's budget would eventually double out-of-pocket Medicare expenses for the elderly.
Polls show that while voters want action to bring down the deficit -- set to reach $1.4 trillion this year -- they overwhelmingly oppose any changes to Medicare.
Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney, considered leading contenders for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, have backed away from Ryan's plan.
Although Senate Republicans appeared to stand by Ryan's plan in a vote on Wednesday, some conceded that their vote was more about party unity than real support to overhaul Medicare. The Democratic-controlled Senate defeated the House-passed Ryan proposal by a vote of 57 to 40, with five Republican senators voting against it.
'ARTICLE OF FAITH'
Republican Senator Bob Corker said there were no Senate Republicans who viewed it as an "article of faith."
A Republican strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Republicans would rather campaign next year about high unemployment than "tell voters why they want to dismantle Medicare."
"The Republican budget is a toxic political liability for the GOP," Democratic Senator Patty Murray said, referring to the Grand Old Party nickname of the Republicans. Tuesday's House contest "will be remembered as a defining moment in the next election."
With Democrats now having every political incentive not to tackle Medicare costs and with many Republicans eager to avoid the issue, analysts said Tuesday's election was also a defining moment -- and not a positive one -- for the long-term deficit.
"It's surprising what a ripple effect one special election can have," David Gergen, a political analyst and adviser to four U.S. presidents, told Reuters.
"The New York election makes it harder to reach a comprehensive agreement on deficit reduction before the 2012 election -- and what happens after 2012 is so uncertain. This makes it more likely that they could kick the can down the road, into 2013 or 2014."
With Medicare the largest and one of the fastest growing budget components, significant deficit reduction simply cannot be achieved without some savings from the program.
Recent elections have shown what a politically explosive issue Medicare is -- and the party that tries to change it does so at its peril.
In 2010, Republicans accused Democrats of wanting "death panels" for the elderly under their healthcare proposals. The fallout from the bitter fight over the new healthcare law helped lead to big Republican gains in last November's congressional elections.
This week, one liberal nonprofit group, in an attack on Ryan's plan, released an advertisement showing an elderly woman being thrown off a cliff from her wheelchair -- an image likely to be reprised by Democrats as the 2012 elections draw nearer.
Republicans are branding such efforts as "Mediscare" tactics.
Ryan, speaking at a financial summit in Washington, said Obama and Democrats had decided to "shamelessly distort and demagogue Medicare," and warned that without reform, "it's going to go bankrupt and we'll go into a debt crisis."
Former President Bill Clinton, who waited until being re-elected to a second term before tackling welfare reform, warned Democrats against using Medicare for "short-term political gain."
Now freed from the political constraints of office, Clinton bluntly told fellow Democrats: "We've got to deal with these things. You cannot have healthcare devour the economy."
(Editing by Ross Colvin and Will Dunham)