Image: Eric Cantor
J. Scott Applewhite  /  AP
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., meets with reporters in his office at the Capitol, Monday, May 23, 2011. Middle East peace, GOP presidential candidates for president, and the economy drove the discussion.
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updated 5/25/2011 9:03:51 AM ET 2011-05-25T13:03:51

Little more than a month after they backed sweeping changes to Medicare, Republicans are on the political defensive, exhibiting significant internal strains for the first time since last fall's election gains.

"We've got to get beyond this," Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said recently after several days of back and forth over the proposal he authored and included in the budget that cleared on a party line vote. "And we've got to get onto a serious conversation about what it takes to fix the fiscal problems in this country."

Under Ryan's proposal, Medicare would remain unchanged for those 55 or older, including the millions who now receive health care under the program. Anyone younger would be required to obtain coverage from a private insurer, with the government providing a subsidy to cover part of the cost of premiums.

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In the weeks since the budget cleared, President Barack Obama led a Democratic attack, a special election in a reliably Republican House district in New York turned unexpectedly competitive and GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich sharply criticized Ryan's proposal. Gingrich quickly apologized.

Story: Rep. Ryan: Gingrich misunderstood Medicare plan

While defending his plan in Wisconsin and nationally, Ryan said he is open to changes, and a Senate vote tentatively set for this week on rival budgets has produced two Republican defections so far. Additionally, Republicans say they know of no plans to seek passage of legislation to implement the proposal.

'Growth agenda'
With Congress just back from a week's vacation, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., indicated Monday that Republicans want to change the subject. Without mentioning Medicare, he said the House majority has been focusing recently on "how to address the deficit (by) cutting back on the expenditures."

Now, he said, the GOP will present a "growth agenda."

Several strategists in both parties said in recent interviews the Republican proposals for Medicare are viewed more favorably when they are presented as part of a larger effort to fix the economy and create jobs.

For their part, Obama and other Democrats criticize the GOP proposal in narrow terms, an attack on a program that provides health care to millions.

Obama called the approach radical — the same term Gingrich used. Republicans want "to end Medicare as we know it," the president told an audience of invited guests, Ryan and other GOP lawmakers among them.

Privately, Republicans cite polling suggesting the Democratic charges are finding a receptive audience.

Story: Mass. Sen. Brown opposes Ryan Medicare overhaul

In one private poll circulated among Republicans in the past few weeks, 46 percent of those surveyed said they believed the GOP blueprint would reduce benefits for those over 55, including current beneficiaries. Another 41 percent said they believed it would not.

Dems use NY House race as test
Beyond the polling and the rhetoric, Democrats seized on a special election for a House seat in New York to test-market their attacks.

The Democratic candidate, Kathy Hochul, aired ads that said she wants to reduce government spending, but Republican rival Jane Corwin favors Medicare cuts "to pay for more tax cuts for multimillionaires."

Corwin counterattacked, accusing Hochul of wanting to cut Social Security.

Fearing defeat, the National Republican Congressional Committee has spent more than $400,000 on campaign activities. It aired an ad reminiscent of commercials that aired in 2010, and linked Hochul to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.

In addition, American Crossroads, a GOP-aligned group, has spent nearly $700,000, much of it attacking Jack Davis, the third candidate in the race. A one-time Democrat, he is running as a Tea Party advocate.

"Jack Davis' presence is the only reason this is a competitive race," said Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee.

He said Medicare has not had an impact except that "Jane Corwin has shown that Republicans need to fight back on Medicare and call Democrats out for their scare tactics."

Democrats dispute that.

"I'm not saying we're going to win this but the fact that this is a competitive race in one of the most Republican districts in the country shows how Medicare is shaping" the campaign, said Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The issue "was a game changer," he said.

Heading into 2012
Win or lose, Democrats say they intend to take the issue into the 2012 campaign.

"This is a vote tabulation that you will see over and over again," Pelosi, D-Calif., said recently, referring to the 235-193 roll call that passed the budget. Only four Republicans opposed the measure, and no Democrats voted in its favor.

Ryan said last weekend he would "of course" be amenable to changing his proposal, and added, "This is the legislative process. But let's be clear: We are the only ones who have put out a plan to fix this problem" of soaring federal debt.

While Democrats have been relentless in attacking the proposal, Gingrich stirred controversy when he contrasted Ryan's approach to the new health care law Obama won from Congress.

"I don't think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a good way for a free society to operate," he said.

Criticized by fellow conservatives, Gingrich called Ryan to apologize. But a week later, he said he still opposes the Wisconsin lawmaker's call for denying those under 55 access to the current Medicare system.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Gingrich: Ryan’s Medicare proposal is ‘too big a jump’

  1. Transcript of: Gingrich: Ryan’s Medicare proposal is ‘too big a jump’

    MR. GREGORY: What about entitlements? The Medicare trust fund, in stories that have come out over the weekend, is now going to be depleted by 2024 , five years earlier than predicted. Do you think that Republicans ought to buck the public opposition and really move forward to completely change Medicare , turn it into a voucher program where you give seniors...

    REP. GINGRICH: Right.

    MR. GREGORY: ...some premium support and -- so that they can go out and buy private insurance?

    REP. GINGRICH: I don't think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left- wing social engineering . I don't think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate. I think we need a national conversation to get to a better Medicare system with more choices for seniors. But there are specific things you can do . At the Center for Health Transformation , which I helped found, we published a book called " Stop Paying the Crooks ." We thought that was a clear enough, simple enough idea, even for Washington . We -- between Medicare and Medicaid , we pay between $70 billion and $120 billion a year to crooks. And IBM has agreed to help solve it, American Express has agreed to help solve it, Visa 's agreed to help solve it. You can't get anybody in this town to look at it. That's, that's almost $1 trillion over a decade. So there are things you can do to improve Medicare .

    MR. GREGORY: But not what Paul Ryan is suggesting, which is completely changing Medicare .

    REP. GINGRICH: I, I think that, I think, I think that that is too big a jump. I think what you want to have is a system where people voluntarily migrate to better outcomes, better solutions, better options, not one where you suddenly impose upon the -- I don't want to -- I'm against Obamacare , which is imposing radical change , and I would be against a conservative imposing radical change .

    MR. GREGORY: Let me ask you about the issue of taxes. You've been clear so far in your campaign. You want to reduce the corporate tax rate, reduce other taxes, make permanent the Bush era tax cuts . You won't raise taxes? You won't consider it as part of a balanced budget at any point, raising taxes ?

    REP. GINGRICH: No.

    MR. GREGORY: Under no circumstances?

    REP. GINGRICH: I, I believe this is a country which has overspent, it's not undertaxed. And I believe every time you raise taxes, the politicians use that as an excuse to avoid facing the real decisions we're, we're confronting. We have a moment in history where we can get our house in order if we have the courage to stick to the job. I mean, I helped balance the budget for four straight years. We did it by cutting taxes and bringing the unemployment rate down to below 4 percent. The number one job in America today is to get people back to work because America only works when Americans are working.

    MR. GREGORY: But serious bipartisan figures who have looked at this said you can't simply have a conversation about bringing the deficit into balance, the budget into balance, without looking at revenue increases.

    REP. GINGRICH: Look, serious bipartisan figures are operating within the Washington consensus , which is wrong. You can, in fact, fundamentally rethink the federal government . Let me give you an example. IBM and Dell , and the other high-tech companies came together,

    issued a report: If the federal government was simply run as effectively as a multinational corporation, it's worth $125 billion a year. I just put on the table for you not paying crooks, which is worth between $70 billion and $120 billion a year. None of these serious bipartisan figures rethink the federal government . They fight over the current shape of the federal government .

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