U.S. Republicans regroup on Medicare, budget plan

Tue Apr 26, 2011 6:44pm EDT

* Republicans feeling heat over Medicare proposal

* Florida town hall turns into raucous shouting match

By Donna Smith

WASHINGTON, April 26 (Reuters) - Republican lawmakers privately discussed ways on Tuesday to better explain a proposed overhaul of a popular healthcare program for the elderly after a number of testy exchanges with constituents.

"Some members are feeling the heat," a congressional aide said, referring to some voters' reaction to a proposal by Paul Ryan, chairman of the House of Representatives Budget Committee, to gradually privatize the Medicare program.

In a conference call, House Republicans, who are in the midst of a two-week recess, talked about how to assure those aged 55 and older that the recommended changes would not affect them, aides said.

Ryan, who wrote the budget plan that calls for ending the traditional government-run Medicare program for people 54 and younger, gave them pointers on how to present the Republican case for overhauling the program, aides said.

One aide quoted Ryan as telling House members that "our plan strengthens Medicare, protects today's seniors and (protects) Medicare for future generations."

Polls show the proposal is unpopular with many Americans, and Republican lawmakers are hearing an earful from their constituents, according to news accounts and video postings on the Internet of local town-hall meetings.

A meeting on Tuesday in Orlando, Florida, by Representative Dan Webster turned raucous, with the crowd shouting down the first-term congressman and yelling at each other, according to an account by the Orlando Sentinel.

Ryan himself was booed at a meeting last week over his call to cut taxes for the wealthy as part of his plan to slash U.S. budget deficits by $4.4 trillion over 10 years.

The Ryan budget plan passed the Republican-led House earlier this month but has no chance of getting through the Democratic-led Senate. The battle over Medicare will likely extend through next year's presidential election. Democrats accuse Republicans of seeking to end the healthcare program to continue tax breaks for the wealthy.

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The Medicare proposal would give future retirees a federal subsidy to purchase healthcare coverage from private insurers. Anyone now 55 and older would still have access to traditional Medicare benefits.

Republican Allen West of Florida said he had been hearing from constituents both for and against the proposal.

"The individuals calling in opposition are being provided misinformation about what the budget does to reform Medicare," West said in an e-mail.

"The ones calling in support realize that if changes are not made today for individuals under the age of 55, the program will not be there when they retire."

Democrats and liberal interest groups have been running ads against a number of Republicans who voted for the Ryan plan.

So far, voter ire has not appeared to come near the public anger in 2009 over President Barack Obama's healthcare overhaul. That became a rally cry for the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement that helped Republicans win the House from Democrats in last year's congressional elections.

Representative Tim Griffin of Arkansas said constituents become more understanding when the overhaul is put into the context of the national debt now topping $14 trillion.

Griffin said he explained to constituents that he did not vote to end Medicare and that the program would go broke in nine years if nothing was done to fix it.

"If someone really wanted to end Medicare, they wouldn't propose a reform, they would do nothing," Griffin said. (Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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