Will Anybody Make the Case for Medicare Reform?

| Thu May 26, 2011 11:14 AM EDT

Democrats are riding high off their political victories this week on Medicare. On Wednesday, the Senate defeated Paul Ryan's 2012 budget, which passed the House earlier this month. The Dems held the purely political vote in an attempt to pin the Ryan plan even more firmly on the GOP, and in that regard, they succeeded. Despite their increasingly mealy-mouthed defense of the Ryan plan, all but five Senate Republicans stood by the budget despite the political risks of supporting its deeply unpopular plan to phase out Medicare.

The Senate vote now gives the Democrats full leeway to use the Ryan plan to attack Republicans in 2012, given the party's surprising unity behind the House budget. But that doesn't necessarily bode well for the future of Medicare itself. Yes, the Dems have succeeded in beginning to turn the political tide against the GOP by attacking their plan for Medicare, but they've done so by playing offense, not defense: Dems have raised fears about the Ryan proposal but haven't made a full-throated defense of their own Medicare reform plan—namely the major provisions for bringing down health-care costs through the Affordable Care Act. And, without strong defenders, some of those key changes have been under increasing threat of being weakened or dismantled.

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On Wednesday, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) became the fifth Democrat to sign onto a House GOP bill to repeal the Dems' new Medicare panel, known as the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), which is central to the party's efforts to restore the entitlement program to fiscal sanity. Sanchez, a liberal Democrat and member of the House Progressive Caucus, now joins pro-business New Democrats like Rep. Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.) and Rep. Shelley Berkeley (D-Nev.) in opposing what some Republicans have dubbed the new "death panel." By fear-mongering about reductions to Medicare without fiercely defending their own plan, Democrats may also be putting their own unpopular efforts to haul in the program at risk.

While the current political battle over Medicare could help the Democrats in 2012, it could also be turning the entitlement into the new "third rail" of American politics that both parties are afraid to touch, as The Washington Post's Fix points out. It's unclear whether IPAB or the other Democratic proposals to reign in Medicare will end up working. But unless Democrats stand up to give it fighting chance—or powerful alternatives are put into place—Medicare's viability remains at risk, even if the Democrats win the short-term political battle.

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