The Republican Party issued a new salvo in the health debate Monday with a "seniors' health care bill of rights" that opposed any moves to trim Medicare spending or limit end-of-life care to seniors.
Intended as a political shot at President Barack Obama, the Republican National Committee manifesto marks a remarkable turnaround for a party that had once fought to trim the health program for the elderly and disabled, which last year cost taxpayers over $330 billion.
The Republican stance also underscores how tough it will be for Mr. Obama to find politically palatable savings to pay for new coverage while reining in spiraling health-care costs.
The Republicans said they aimed to "protect Medicare and not cut it in the name of health-care reform," in a statement and an accompanying op-ed written by RNC Chairman Michael Steele and published in Monday's Washington Post.
The party also vowed to oppose any Democratic effort to ration care or to insert the government between seniors and their doctors.
The Obama administration has repeatedly said it does not intend to ration care to seniors.
The Republicans are hoping to tap into unease among seniors. Recent polls have shown that support for sweeping health-care changes is ebbing most rapidly among Americans over the age of 65.
Congressional Democrats shot back at the Republican statement. "The Republicans are doing nothing but saying 'No' and spreading lies," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D., Ill.), on a conference call with reporters sponsored by the Democratic National Committee.
At the same time, voters are expressing disenchantment with Republican positions. In an NBC News poll released last week, 62% of respondents -- and 42% of Republicans -- disapproved of how congressional Republicans were handling the health-care issue.
The same poll found that 41% of respondents favored Mr. Obama's handling of the issue, while 47% disapproved. [OP edit: Here's my thing on this....they aren't asking *why* they approve or disapprove. Do they disapprove because he's not doing enough to back a public health plan option? Or is it because they think he's going too far? Personally, I think that would be a far better indicator right now of public opinion]
The country's largest lobbying group for seniors, AARP, said it welcomed the RNC's commitment to protect Medicare. But the group, which supports efforts to overhaul the health-care system, also dismissed the RNC statement as misleading and alarmist.
"Change by itself is anxiety producing, but as we have analyzed the various bills [before Congress], the proposed Medicare savings do not limit benefits, they do not impose rationing and they do not put the government between patients and their doctors," said John Rother, AARP's executive vice president.
Mr. Rother said that AARP was frustrated by the lack of concrete proposals being put forward on the Republican side of the debate. "The debate as I see it doesn't even focus on health care," Mr. Rother said. "It is all about the role of government and the importance of the federal deficit."
The Republican statement highlights an irony in the health debate, as illustrated during some of the emotional town-hall meetings this month: Many Americans say they fear a government takeover of health care, even as they resist any cuts to Medicare, the federal government's largest health program.
Tensions are evident within the Republican Party over its posture in the health-care debate. Some conservative commentators are proposing steps to contain health-care costs that center on "consumer-directed" policies, including requiring people to pay for routine care out of their own pockets to encourage comparison shopping.
But others in the party oppose making specific proposals now, arguing that the better strategy is to oppose what Democrats are putting forward.
The new RNC position doesn't offer any significant cost-cutting ideas and instead focuses on preserving Medicare and health benefits for military families. Katie Wright, an RN!spokeswoman, said Republicans still believed in controlling Medicare costs but think "money shouldn't be taken from Medicare to fund a new entitlement."
Republicans and Democrats have feuded over Medicare since its inception in 1965, and it is usually Democrats who adopt the stance of protecting the program against cost-cutters.
Ronald Reagan proposed cutting $1 billion in Medicare spending while president in 1981, when the program cost just $40 billion a year.
In the mid-1990s, congressional Republicans proposed deep cuts in Medicare and Medicaid to pay for tax cuts. That sparked a backlash and gave President Bill Clinton his best weapon to fight back against the Republican "Contract With America."
President George W. Bush, realizing Medicare's popularity among seniors, pushed for including prescription drugs in the program. The legislation won Democratic support and went into effect in 2006, marking the largest increase in benefits since Medicare's creation.
During the 2008 presidential election, both candidates acknowledged that any health-care overhaul had to grapple with exploding Medicare costs, but neither Mr. Obama nor Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain offered much detail. Democrats charged that Mr. McCain planned to trim Medicare spending to help pay for his plan to give all households a $5,000 tax credit to buy health insurance, but he rejected the claim.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Mr. McCain's top economic adviser during the campaign, said the RNC attack was, for Mr. !Obama, "a classic example of 'reap what you sow.'"
"The Obama guys blistered us for proposing radical cuts to Medicare, when what we were proposing were efficiency gains and delivery reforms that would have reined in the growth of costs," he said. "So, welcome to the club."
So yeah, the GOP is basically the killer from the movie Scream, and Democrats are all of the red herring "suspects" that you are misled into thinking might be the killer instead.