NPR

Medicare, Debt Ceiling Votes Put Lawmakers On Spot

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is joined by Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) as he speaks to reporters after a budget vote Wednesday. The Democratic-run Senate voted down a controversial budget plan from the Republican-majority House that calls for turning Medicare into a voucherlike program for future beneficiaries. (AP)

Senate Democrats forced their GOP colleagues Wednesday to vote on a House Republican budget, getting most of those Republicans on record as backing that budget's unpopular plan to privatize Medicare.

Next week in the GOP-run House, a similar show vote is planned, asking lawmakers to raise the debt ceiling — with no strings attached — a move that could put Democrats in a tight spot.

When House Republicans approved the spending plan drawn up by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) last month, Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV) made no move to bring it up for a vote. But that was before GOP House members went back to their districts and took a lot of heat from angry constituents for backing the plan, which would privatize Medicare a decade from now.

Polls also show sizable majorities rejecting that plan. And when Democrat Kathy Hochul won a House seat in a special election in a solidly Republican district in upstate New York on Tuesday, Democrats credited that upset victory to her Republican opponent's embrace of Ryan's Medicare proposal.

'All About Political Fodder'

When Reid called for a vote Wednesday on bringing up the House budget in the Senate, he zeroed in on Medicare, saying, "The Republican plan to kill Medicare is a plan to make the rich richer and the sick sicker."

But the top Republican on the Budget Committee, Alabama's Jeff Sessions, said Democrats just don't get it.

"They think they can scare people by saying we're going to end Medicare, and they're going to vote on it," he said. "And the vote in our Democratic politicians' mind is that 'we defend Medicare and all of you oppose Medicare.'

"The American people are getting too smart for that. I don't believe they're going to buy that path any longer."

Republican Sen. Mike Johanns of Nebraska said it was simply campaign politics.

"These votes, I guarantee, are all about political fodder for next year's election season," he said.

Five Republicans — two of them up for re-election next year — broke ranks with their party and voted with Democrats to block the Ryan budget, 57-40. Alaska's Lisa Murkowski was among them.

"The Medicare reform piece is not one that I am 100 percent with, maybe I'm ... looking for the perfect here, but anyway, I'm voting no," she said.

Pointing to this week's victory in the New York House district, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee chairwoman, said it's clear the GOP Medicare plan is giving pause to many other Republicans as well.

"I'm confident that Senate Democrats will be able to play offense in races across the country by remaining focused on Republican efforts to end Medicare in order to pay for an almost 30 percent tax-rate reduction for the wealthiest Americans and big corporations," she said.

Ryan was dismissive about Senate Democrats putting his budget up for a vote before offering a plan of their own.

"It would be nice if they actually wrote a budget and tried to pass a budget," he said. "I think it's more political theater than anything."

Debt-Ceiling Vote

That's exactly what House Democrats are saying about the Republicans' plan to hold a vote next week on raising the debt ceiling — without attaching any debt-reduction measures that would make such a vote politically safer for both sides. Democrats have backed off earlier demands for a vote simply on raising the debt limit, which has already been reached. But Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), the House Republican Conference chairman, said that vote is going ahead.

"This is something that the secretary of Treasury has requested. It's something that I think it's a 100, perhaps 150 different House Democrats have requested," he said. "We don't believe that's the way to go, but I think it's important to let the president know that that is not where the support of Congress is.

"So this will let him know that the votes aren't there and hopefully hasten negotiations."

New Jersey House Democrat Rob Andrews said Republicans are playing a very dangerous game with this vote.

"What you're going to get next week is a headline that says, 'U.S. House fails to raise debt ceiling,' " he said. "I don't know what global investors are going to make of that headline, but I don't think they should be reading it."

When asked if he would vote to raise the debt ceiling, Andrews said he "probably will."

That, too, is a vote destined to become next year's campaign fodder.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly in for Steve Inskeep.

It's a time show votes on Capitol Hill.

Senate Democrats last night forced their GOP colleagues to vote on a House Republican budget. As a result, most of those Republicans are now on record as backing a plan to privatize Medicare. Next week in the House, a similar show vote is planned. Republicans will ask lawmakers to raise the debt ceiling with no strings attached a move that could put Democrats in a tight spot.

NPR's David Welna has the story.

DAVID WELNA: When House Republicans approved the spending plan drawn up by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan last month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made no move to bring it up for a vote. But that was before GOP House members went back to their districts and took a lot of heat from angry constituents for backing the plan, which would privatize Medicare a decade from now.

Polls also show sizable majorities rejecting that plan. And when Democrat Kathy Hochul won a House seat in a special election in a solidly Republican district in upstate New York this week, Democrats credited that upset victory to her Republican opponent's embrace of Paul Ryan's Medicare proposal.

Last night, when Reid called for a vote on bringing up the House budget in the Senate, he zeroed in on Medicare.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): The Republican plan to kill Medicare is a plan to make the rich richer and the sick sicker.

WELNA: But the top Republican on the Budget Committee, Alabama's Jeff Sessions, said Democrats just don't get it.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): They think they can scare people by saying we're going to end Medicare, and they're going to vote on it. And the vote in our Democratic politicians' mind is that we defend Medicare and all of you oppose Medicare. The American people are getting too smart for that. I don't believe they're going to buy that path any longer.

WELNA: For Republican Mike Johanns of Nebraska, it was simply campaign politics.

Senator MIKE JOHANNS (Republican, Nebraska): These votes, I guarantee, are all about political fodder for next year's election season.

WELNA: Five Republicans - two of them up for re-election next year - broke ranks with their party and voted with Democrats to block the Ryan budget, 57-40. Alaska's Lisa Murkowski was one of the renegades.

Senator LISA MURKOWSKI (Republican, Alaska): The Medicare reform piece is not one that I'm 100 percent with. Maybe I'm - maybe I'm looking for the perfect here, but anyway, I'm voting no.

WELNA: Pointing to this week's victory in the New York House district, Senate Democrat Campaign Committee chairwoman Patty Murray said it's clear the GOP Medicare plan is giving pause to a lot of other Republicans as well.

Senator PATTY MURRAY (Democrat, Washington State): So I'm confident that Senate Democrats will be able to play offense in races across the country by remaining focused on the Republican effort to end Medicare in order to pay for an almost 30 percent tax-rate reduction for the wealthiest Americans and big corporations.

WELNA: Ask about the Senate Democrats putting his budget up for a vote before offering a plan of their own, House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan was dismissive.

Representative PAUL RYAN (Republican, Wisconsin): It would be nice if they actually wrote a budget and tried to pass a budget. I think it's more political theater than anything.

WELNA: Which is exactly what House Democrats are saying about the Republicans' plan to hold a vote next week on raising the debt ceiling - without attaching any debt-reduction measures that would make such a vote politically safer for both sides. Democrats have backed off earlier demands for a vote simply on raising the debt limit, which has already been reached. But House Republican Conference chairman Jeb Hensarling says that vote's going ahead.

Representative JEB HENSARLING (Republican, Texas): This is something that the secretary of Treasury has requested. It's something that I think it's a 100, perhaps 150 different House Democrats have requested. We don't believe that's the way to go, but I think it's important to let the president know that that is not where the support of Congress is. So this will let him know that the votes aren't there and hopefully hasten negotiations.

WELNA: New Jersey House Democrat Rob Andrews says Republicans are playing a very dangerous game with this vote.

Representative ROB ANDREWS (Democrat, New Jersey): Because what you're going to get next week is a headline that says: U.S. House fails to raise debt ceiling. I don't know what global investors are going to make of that headline, but I don't think they should be reading it.

WELNA: Will you vote to raise the debt ceiling?

Rep. ROB ANDREWS: I probably will.

WELNA: That too is a vote destined to become next year's campaign fodder.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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