During a House floor speech on April 13, 2011, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., took aim at a recent proposal by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to change the way the Medicare system works.
As part of a plan for reducing the national debt, Ryan proposes that Americans 55 and younger today would not get traditional Medicare but rather qualify for a government "premium support" to help them buy health insurance from a private company starting in 2022. (We recently fact-checked a characterization of the plan by one of Ryan’s fellow Republicans, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana; see it here.)
DeFazio, in his floor speech, decried Ryan’s plan, arguing that it would all but gut a popular program that works well.
"Before Medicare, 25 percent of the seniors in America lived in poverty, many driven there by the lack of affordable, decent health insurance," DeFazio said. "Medicare passed with virtually no Republican support. It solved that problem. Seniors today are guaranteed quality, affordable health care. They pay about 27 percent of the cost. While under the guise of fiscal responsibility, the Republican budget wants to turn back the clock to the good old days: Throw the seniors into the private health care market again."
We wondered whether DeFazio was right that "Medicare passed with virtually no Republican support." In 2009, we rated a similar statement by former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean, and we will draw from it as we analyze DeFazio’s more recent statement.
It turns out that a significant number of Republicans did vote in favor of the Medicare bill when Congress took it up in 1965.
The House adopted a conference report -- a unified House-Senate version of the bill -- on July 27, 1965, and passed it by a 307-116 margin. That included 70 Republican "yes" votes, against 68 "no" votes.
Then, on July 28, 1965, the Senate adopted the bill by a vote of 70-24, with 13 Republicans in favor and 17 against. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it two days later.
So in the House, a slight majority of the Republican caucus voted for Medicare, and in the Senate, a significant minority voted in favor. Both of these strike us as more than "virtually no Republican support."
It’s true that the Medicare bill was unpopular in certain segments of the Republican Party. In 1961, Ronald Reagan, the future president, famously released an LP with a speech in which he demonized "socialized medicine," citing proposals that sound a lot like the one passed four years later.
"Write those letters now; call your friends and then tell them to write them," Reagan said. "If you don't, this program, I promise you, will pass just as surely as the sun will come up tomorrow, and behind it will come other federal programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country. ... And if you don't do this and if I don't do it, one of these days we are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children, what it once was like in America when men were free."
Other high-profile Republicans who opposed Medicare included Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater -- the unsuccessful Republican presidential nominee in 1964 -- and future president George H.W. Bush.
And as the Medicare bill progressed through the House, Republican support was scant. No Republicans voted for the bill until it reached the floor. It passed the Ways and Means Committee by a party-line vote of 17-8. And all four Republicans on the House Rules Committee — the panel that sets the boundaries of debate on all bills that come to the House floor — voted against the bill.
As the bill worked its way through the Senate, Republican support was somewhat stronger. In the final Finance Committee vote, the measure passed 12-5, with four of the committee's eight Republicans supporting it.
"The political parties were very different in 1965 than they are today," said Donald Ritchie, the historian of the U.S. Senate. "Both had strong conservative and liberal wings, so most votes were bipartisan because the conservatives in the two parties voted against the liberals in each party. You had Republicans like Jacob Javits (N.Y.) who were more liberal than most Democrats, and Democrats like James Eastland (Miss.) who were more conservative than most Republicans. So there were Republicans who supported Medicare and Democrats who opposed it."
When we contacted DeFazio’s office, a spokeswoman noted that the congressman has a background in gerontology and offered links to articles, including this one, to show that Republicans "fought against the creation of Medicare starting with the Truman administration."
It’s true that some of the biggest opponents of Medicare early on were Republicans. But many big opponents were conservative Democrats, and ultimately, it’s wrong to say, as DeFazio does, that "Medicare passed with virtually no Republican support." His comment focuses on the period when the bill finally passed, and thanks to the GOP’s liberal-to-moderate wing -- which by now has largely disappeared -- a majority of House Republicans and a sizable minority of Senate Republicans voted in favor of Medicare. We rate DeFazio’s statement False.