WASHINGTON-A pair of congressional lawmakers provided a rare sight on Thursday: A Republican and a Democrat sharing the stage while talking about reforming Medicare. Even more rare is the fact that the two lawmakers from different sides of the party divide actually agreed on a Medicare overhaul strategy.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a hero to fiscal conservatives, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who voted for Obama's healthcare law, have joined forces to introduce a new Medicare reform plan.
Their proposal (detailed in this downloadable PDF) would give seniors the ability to choose between private insurance programs or Medicare. They argue that the competition embedded in their plan would lead to lower prices and slow the growth of Medicare as insurers compete for market share. Under the plan, seniors would receive a fixed amount, called a "premium support," to spend on either public or private health insurance through a Medicare exchange that would open in 2022.
Insurance companies would have to meet federal consumer protection requirements to be listed on the exchange. These private plans would have to be equal to or more comprehensive than traditional Medicare, and the insurers would have to offer insurance to all seniors without considering age or health.
"By empowering seniors to use choice and competition to control costs and improve quality, our plan ensures that Medicare remains a guaranteed, affordable option for all seniors for decades to come," Ryan said.
Earlier this year Ryan released a GOP blueprint for reforming Medicare that the Republican-led House adopted amid much Democratic uproar and ridicule. This new bipartisan plan, unlike Ryan's earlier blueprint, keeps traditional Medicare as an option for seniors but combines it with private plan alternatives. Some conservatives will criticize the preservation of Medicare as an option, but this concession earned the support of Wyden.
"What this bill does is it embeds for all time a program that progressives have felt very strongly about, and that is traditional Medicare will always be part of this program," Wyden said. "Not something that will be shrouded in ambiguity. It will be permanently there. That, of course, is important for progressive folks."
In the short term, this compromise proposal likely will have limited impact on actual policy. But it will have immediate political implications that could extend throughout the 2012 election.
Democrats have been mounting a campaign strategy of telling voters that Republicans are out to eliminate Medicare. This tactic, dubbed "Mediscare" by conservatives, may look less believable to voters now that a Senate Democrat has joined forces with Republicans on Medicare reform. And joined forces with not just any Republican. Democrats have been painting Ryan as Medicare public enemy No. 1. But now Ryan has the support of one of the Democrat's own, and he has placed on the table a reform that doesn't kill Medicare while providing more freedom of choice.
Despite losing a liberal ally, White House officials wasted no time in attacking the proposal. White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said the plan "would end Medicare as we know it."
Added White House press secretary Jay Carney, "You don't have to do something that's radical. As the president has said, our problems are not as great as they are in some countries that we would have to do something that radical if we were only willing to take a balanced approach."
Ryan, who now is calling Wyden a partner, said he is disappointed that President Obama is ignoring the growing bipartisan consensus on the need to reform entitlements.
Beyond shifting the Republican and Democrat debate heading into 2012, the Wyden-Ryan plan is also creating waves within the GOP presidential race. Current frontrunner Newt Gingrich, who took heat earlier this year for calling Ryan's original plan "right-wing social engineering," quickly praised this latest bipartisan effort as courageous.
"Maybe it's the beginning of breaking up the logjam, and starting to get Democrats and Republicans to talk to each other," Gingrich said. "This is a very courageous thing for each of them to do, to reach out, come together, and offer a genuinely bipartisan bill given the atmosphere you have in Washington."
Meanwhile GOP rival Mitt Romney, who has been airing ads highlighting Gingrich's criticism of Ryan's original plan, also fired back on Thursday.
"Nothing better illustrates Speaker Gingrich's unreliable leadership than his tortured position on the Ryan plan," said Romney communications director Gail Gitcho.
Ryan admits that his plan with Wyden is meant to provide a framework for more detailed bipartisan discussions. That remains to be seen. But getting a Democrat behind limiting the open-ended financial nature of Medicare as it is now structured is a masterstroke. It will pressure Democrats on the campaign trail to explain this unusual alliance whenever they go into Mediscare mode.