(Bloomberg) — Republicans have called for major Medicare changes for years, but now that they may be in a position to push something through, some party leaders are wary of sparking a fight over a popular program that President-elect Donald Trump promised he’d protect.
“That falls under the rule of not biting off more than you can chew,” Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in an interview. “The problems about the solvency of Medicare should be left for another debate, another discussion, and not be part of the replace and repeal” effort on the Affordable Care Act.
Trump’s selection of House Budget Chairman Tom Price of Georgia to lead the Health and Human Services Department provoked Democratic concerns that Republicans will try to privatize Medicare when they go after the ACA, which is also known as Obamacare.
After Trump’s victory, Price told reporters that Congress will seek to pass a Medicare overhaul as early as the fall of 2017.
House Speaker Paul Ryan has pushed to transform Medicare from a program that directly pays medical bills for the elderly into a voucher-like system where future seniors receive a limited subsidy to buy private insurance. He told Fox News on Nov. 10 that “Medicare has got some serious problems because of Obamacare, so those things are part of our plan to replace Obamacare.”
Alexander’s remarks reflect hesitation among numerous Republican senators with the idea, now that they will have control of both chambers and the White House.
Republican Sens. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, Johnny Isakson of Georgia, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Chuck Grassley of Iowa all stopped short of endorsing the idea Tuesday, when asked if they want to turn Medicare into a “premium support” system in 2017.
The proposal is also giving a shell-shocked Democratic Party a rallying cry, uniting them in opposition to a plan they believe is a losing issue for the GOP. Many Senate Democrats quickly came out against Trump’s plan to nominate Price, citing his support for voucherizing Medicare.
“After the 2004 elections, Republicans tried to take the rug out from under our seniors to privatize Social Security. After the 2016 elections, it seems they’re intent on trying the same trick on Medicare,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the incoming Democratic leader. “Just as their efforts failed then, they will fail now.”
Two red-state Democrats facing tough re-election races in 2018, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, have come out against such a Medicare overhaul, signaling that Republicans won’t be able to rely on bipartisan cooperation on the idea.
“They’re talking about that. This whole thing about privatization and all that — I’m not in that camp,” Manchin told reporters Tuesday. “I’m just not there.”
An additional complication is the president-elect’s position. Since 2015, Trump promised to be a different kind of Republican — by protecting Medicare.
“I’m not going to cut Social Security like every other Republican and I’m not going to cut Medicare or Medicaid. Every other Republican is going to cut,” he said in an article posted on his campaign website.