The GOP's Medicare Defectors

| Tue May 24, 2011 9:54 AM EDT

Welcome to Medicarepalooza! The political brawl surrounding the entitlement program will come to a new head this week, as Republicans face a series of tough challenges to Paul Ryan's proposal to "end Medicare as we know it," as the Democrats are fond of saying.

The Senate is likely to hold a vote on Rep. Paul Ryan's budget in the upcoming days. The measure is all but assured to fail, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has insisted on the symbolic vote to hold the GOP accountable for the plan, which the GOP-controlled House passed in April. All Senate Democrats are expected to vote against it, but a small handful of Republicans could defect as well, primarily because of the Ryan plan's Medicare overhaul.

Up to five Senate Republicans could end up voting against the Ryan plan this week, according to Politico's latest count. The Senate GOP's tiny moderate wing would account for most of the defections. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Scott Brown (R-Mass.) have pledged to vote against the budget, citing concerns with the Medicare proposal. Similarly, both Olympia Snowe* (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (I-Alaska.) are both "leaning no" on the budget. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), another more moderate GOPer, is "leaning yes" but hasn't fully committed yet.

Finally, Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has put himself on the opposite end of the spectrum, vowing to vote against the budget for failing to go far enough. Paul has demanded that any proposal conform to his balanced budget amendment and has also insisted on major cuts to Social Security, which the Ryan budget doesn't touch.

The Republican defections are likely to embolden Democrats, some of whom are already predicting that Medicare will be the defining issue of the 2012 elections. Both parties will also be anxiously awaiting the results of Tuesday's special congressional election in upstate New York's 26th district. The race has boiled down to a referendum on the Ryan Medicare plan, and the Democratic candidate, Kathy Hochul, is currently leading by 4 to 6 points. If the Democrats manage to recapture the seat—previously held by disgraced GOPer Chris Lee—they'll be feeling especially bullish about their ability to use Medicare as a political cudgel in 2012.

*Update: Snowe told a local paper on Tuesday that she would vote no on the Ryan budget. She explains: "I am going to vote no on the budget because I have deep and abiding concerns about the approach on Medicare, which is essentially to privatize it."