Aug. 24, 2009 -- In the start of a weeklong push on Medicare, Republicans are going on the offensive and taking on the Democrats' health care plan with a new "seniors' bill of rights," but Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele hasn't always believed that the program for seniors shouldn't be targeted for cost cuts.
"Our seniors have really come under fire in the last few weeks, as more and more proposals look to be cutting benefits out of Medicare programs," Steele said of the six-point proposal, which calls for the president to not cut Medicare benefits in his health care overhaul.
"We should protect the seniors' ability to access health care," Steele said on "Good Morning America" Monday.
But despite the new push, the GOP leader hasn't always believed that Medicare should be off limits when it comes to finding cost-savings.
In an October 2006 interview on NBC's "Meet the Press," then then-Senate candidate said that cuts to Medicare "absolutely" had to be "on the table" in order to "control runaway federal spending."
"Everything has to be on the table, my friend," Steele said at the time. "If you don't have enough money in any given month, what do you do? You've got to reprioritize. You've got to take care of the business at hand."
The RNC responded to the seeming discrepancy by arguing that reducing Medicare to shore up the program, as Steele was open to doing in 2006, is more responsible than cutting Medicare for the purpose of expanding health insurance to younger Americans, as Democrats are currently proposing.
Democrats have not proposed benefit cuts under Medicare, but they have proposed cuts to providers. The president has called Medicare and Medicaid "one of the greatest threats to our federal deficit," but has said that cutting costs won't mean cuts in benefits to seniors.
The Democratic National Committee called the RNC's proposal a tactic to scare seniors.
"What's really disturbing is this feigned interest in Medicare and the plight of seniors is coming from the Republican Party -- the very Party which opposed Social Security and only four years ago tried to dismantle it -- and the very Republican Party which opposed the creation of Medicare to begin with," DNC Communications Director Brad Woodhouse said in a statement. "Republicans are fighting against reform for one reason -- to 'break' President Obama and gain political advantage. When it comes to their arguments against reform -- for Republicans it's any port in a storm."
Republicans Step up Health Care Push
Republicans are specifically targeting seniors in their push to oppose health care overhaul proposals put forward by the White House and Congressional Democrats. Seniors have turned up in town halls held by lawmakers to oppose what they believe might be more government intervention.
The DNC accused the GOP of whipping "many Americans into a frenzy at town hall meetings... by spreading one lie about reform after another."
The RNC's "seniors' bill of rights" calls for protecting Medicare and "not cut it in the name of health care reform," prohibiting a government-run insurance option, not limiting health decisions based on a person's age, keeping government out of end-of-life care discussions, ensuring that seniors can keep their coverage, and preserving programs for veterans and military families.
President Obama, "along with Congressional Democrats, are planning to raid, not aid, Medicare by cutting $500 billion to fund his health care experiment," Steele wrote in an op-ed penned for the Washington Post. "These types of 'reforms' don't make sense, either to the future of an already troubled federal program or to the services it provides which millions of Americans count on."
The AARP applauded RNC's bill, saying in a written statement that the organization representing citizens older than 50 "will not support a health care bill that cuts Medicare benefits or puts bureaucracy" between patient and doctor.
Alaska's former governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin helped rachet up the debate by dubbing Obama's proposal a "death panel," saying it would lead to rationing of health care that would hurt the "sick, the elderly and the disabled" and have bureaucrats decide, "based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care."
President Obama has called allegations of a purported death panel "dishonest," saying that an end-of-life care proposal in the House bill was suggested by a Republican and that his plan would not involve a government takeover of health care.
Steele denied that the "death panel" argument was being used as a scare tactic.
"The context of this ... came from the people of this country," he said on "GMA." "My view of it is that I don't need the government rationing health care."
Public Support on Health Care Waning
Funds are running out faster than expected for the 45-year-old Medicare program, which costs the federal government billions of dollars every year. A government report released in May projected that the Medicare hospital trust fund will run out by 2017, two years earlier than was expected last year.
Meanwhile, more Americans are doubtful about the proposed health care overhaul. An ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that fewer than half of Americans, 45 percent, support reform as it has been explained to date, while 50 percent are opposed. Obama's approval rating for handling health care has fallen steadily from 57 percent in April to 46 percent in August.
A survey released Thursday by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that 34 percent of people 65 and older -- the beneficiaries of Medicare -- think they would be worse off if Congress passed health care reform, while 23 percent said they would be better off, and 34 percent said it would not make a difference.
While the White House has expressed confidence that a health care overhaul bill will be passed this year, Republicans say the president and Democratic lawmakers will need bipartisan support and more discussion on the public option plan being proposed that would entail a government run insurance program that would compete with the private industry.
As for the timing of when a bill would be passed, Steele said "it depends on what the president is prepared to do. If he's going to continue down the road of greater government involvement, growing the size of government in this regard, it's going to be a problem."