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In their only face-to-face debate of the campaign, Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin challenged and chided each other’s proposals, particularly on the hot-button issue of Medicare reform.
Ryan is the author of a House budget proposal that calls for substantial changes to the government health care program for seniors, including an eventual shift to "premium support" which beneficiaries could use to purchase private insurance. Romney has embraced it as a means of introducing choice and competition into Medicare. Democrats, including Biden and President Barack Obama, say it will end up costing seniors more.
In the Oct. 11 debate, Ryan defended the plan as having bipartisan support:
"This is a plan that's bipartisan. It's a plan I put together with a prominent Democrat
senator from Oregon," said Ryan.
"There's not one Democrat who endorses it," Biden interjected.
"Our partner is a Democrat from Oregon," Ryan answered amid some cross-talk.
"And he said he does no longer support (it)," Biden insisted.
Medicare -- complex, polarizing and highly political because of the huge voting bloc of seniors who cherish it -- is center stage in the campaign. We decided to check who’s right about across-aisle-support for the Republican plan.
The Ryan budgets
Ryan, the Republican House budget chairman, first unveiled a budget blueprint in early 2011 that would convert Medicare to the premium support model. It also raised the program’s eligibility age from 65 to 67, called for a repeal of Obamacare and reined in other spending to reduce the federal deficit. It passed the House on April 15, 2011, but the Democrat-controlled Senate rejected it a month later.
Arguments over Medicare hit a fever pitch that year, with Democrats accusing Republicans of voting to "end Medicare." Then, in December, the hope of compromise peeked through the partisan clouds.
Ryan and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., joined together and offered a compromise on Medicare reform ideas. Their ideas were contained in a white paper -- never taking the form of legislation -- and were branded as marrying the best proposals from each side.
The main difference from Ryan’s original plan: The new proposal left in place traditional Medicare for those who wanted it, while still offering premium support to buy private policies.
"There's a lot to work with here in terms of trying to find common ground," Wyden said at the time, according to the Washington Post. "This doesn't end Medicare as we know it. People can go to bed knowing that traditional Medicare will be there for them for all time."
He said the plan presented "the opportunity for progressives and conservatives to come together and address the real challenges" of the federal entitlement program: rising health costs and an aging population.
Democrats were unequivocal in their criticism. The White House returned to the old party line, saying the plan would "end Medicare as we know it." House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other House Democrats said it would essentially kill Medicare. Republicans, who sensed a political opportunity in the defection of Wyden, offered more open-minded reactions. Newt Gingrich, who called Ryan's original plan "right-wing social engineering," praised the Ryan-Wyden deal as "a major breakthrough."
Wyden, a senator since 1996, is known as policy-driven and liberal-minded, but also a true and rare compromiser. He told the Oregonian newspaper in March 2012 that he was not being punished by Democratic leaders for partnering with Ryan, saying his biggest adversaries were special interests.
"When you deal with a big issue where there are a lot of passions, you expect this," he said then. "I made the judgment that I couldn't just sit by and talk about business as usual for this program that, for me, has been sacred for three decades."
He also found himself fending off suggestions by Romney that he abetted the Republicans’ Medicare plan. Wyden, according to the Oregonian, said he'd never spoken to Romney. He posted an explanation in the Huffington Post titled "Preserving the Medicare Guarantee: Why I've Been Working with Paul Ryan."
He used personal anecdotes to explain his motivation to fight for seniors and warned that serious reform was needed to preserve the "guarantee to all Americans that they will have high quality health care as they get older."
In the meantime, Ryan unveiled his budget proposal for 2013. It contained many of the same hallmarks as its predecessor: reduced federal spending, repeal of Obamacare. Only this one incorporated the Ryan-Wyden plan for Medicare, with premium support and the traditional option.
Wyden said he was wary of the wider proposal, citing a lower limit for Medicare's spending growth and a full repeal of the health care overhaul. He also warned his Medicare white paper should not be used to anoint the whole Ryan budget as having bipartisan support.
"Any person on the right who says that this is about cover -- that person is hurting senior citizens," Wyden said in a March 20 story in Congressional Quarterly Today. "I say that explicitly because they're making it tougher to get a bipartisan agreement in the future."
Partners no more
If the spring of 2012 showed the Ryan-Wyden romance fading, late summer was the break-up. On Aug. 11, 2012, Ryan was tapped as Romney’s running mate, and within days, Romney was hailing his VP nominee’s Medicare plan as bipartisan -- and naming Wyden.
"Paul Ryan and Sen. Wyden said, 'No, we need to restore, retain and protect Medicare,' " Romney said at a campaign stop in Virginia. "That's what our party will do."
The Post wrote that Wyden was "apparently displeased about his sudden prominence as a validator of the Republican ticket."
"Gov. Romney is talking nonsense," Wyden told reporters, according to the Post.
He explained in detail his two main objections to Romney’s proposals in an interview with Ezra Klein, who writes the Post’s Wonk Blog. Repealing Obamacare, he said, would undo changes to Medicare that are necessary to transition to premium support.
Secondly, Romney has proposed turning Medicaid, the health care program for the poor and disabled, into a block grant to the states and rein in spending. That change, Wyden said, "would do enormous harm to those people whose protection was at the center of the white paper." Romney’s approach to Medicaid "completely pulls the rug out from under the poorest and most vulnerable seniors," he said.
If any doubt remained following the vice presidential debate on Oct. 11 about Wyden’s position on the Republican Medicare plan, Wyden addressed it the same night on his Facebook page.
"The Republican ticket knows that neither I, nor any other Democrat, would support these policies. The Romney/Ryan plan on Medicare is further proof that Mitt Romney is singularly unfit to end gridlock and bring bipartisan solutions to Washington," he wrote.
Biden said "there’s not one Democrat who endorses" the Republican proposal to fundamentally restructure Medicare.
That hasn’t always been the case. Last year, Wyden and Ryan put their heads together and offered a compromise proposal for the future of Medicare. But that bipartisan bond began to crack months ago when the Wisconsin congressman put forth a second budget with provisions Wyden opposed. Their partnership dissolved in August, after Ryan joined the Romney ticket, and Wyden made a point of talking up the differences between his and the Republicans’ ideas for Medicare, not the similarities.
Wyden was the only Democrat to endorse Ryan’s idea of premium support in Medicare, and his approval has clearly been revoked. We rate Biden’s statement True.
CNN, Vice-presidential debate transcript, October 10, 2012
House roll call vote, Ryan Budget Bill, April 15, 2011
Senate roll call vote, Ryan Budget Bill, May 25, 2011
THOMAS, Ryan budget resolution, April 11, 2011
PolitiFact, "Lie of the Year 2011: 'Republicans voted to end Medicare,'" Dec. 20, 2011
"Guaranteed Choices to Strengthen Medicare and Health Security for All," by Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Paul Ryan, Dec. 15, 2011
Washington Post, "Ryan plan would keep Medicare," Dec. 15, 2011
Washington Post, "Across the aisle, Wyden’s a hit," Aug. 13, 2012
Oregonian, "Wyden's Medicare plan riles Democrats," March 18, 2012
Huffington Post, "Preserving the Medicare Guarantee: Why I've Been Working with Paul Ryan," March 19, 2012
THOMAS, Ryan budget resolution, March 23, 2012
Congressional Quarterly Today, "Democrats Criticize GOP's Latest Medicare Plan," March 20, 2012, via Nexis
Washington Post, "Sen. Wyden: Romney’s plan hurts the ‘poorest and most vulnerable seniors,’" Aug. 14, 2012
Oregonian, "Wyden angered by Romney link," Aug. 14, 2012, via Nexis
Email interview with Robert Terra, Romney campaign, Oct. 12, 2012
Sen. Ron Wyden Facebook page, accessed Oct. 12, 2012
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