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Both Parties Wage War of Spin on Impact of Medicare Vote : Politics: Reform plan will hurt seniors and erode support for the GOP, Democrats say. But Republicans contend it will be a boon, because they are doing what is necessary to save the program.

October 20, 1995|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Although Thursday's vote to overhaul the Medicare program divided the House almost strictly along party lines, Republicans and Democrats agreed on at least this much: that the day would be recalled repeatedly throughout the coming presidential and congressional election campaigns.

Democrats savored the idea of campaign ads describing the vote as emblematic of a Republican Party that thinks nothing about denying benefits to worthy recipients so that the pockets of the wealthy can be padded with a tax cut.

Republicans, however, spoke of the political capital for them in rejecting politics as usual and rescuing from bankruptcy the national health care program for the elderly.

"This is going to be the framing issue for 1996," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Sacramento). "They're not going to be able to avoid discussing this vote. There's no question that the momentum has shifted in favor of the Democrats. This has opened the door for us."

Although the election is more than a year away, Democrats said, the Medicare reform vote will have a major influence because seniors constitute a powerful voting block with a long memory on issues that directly affect them.

"I assume people don't vote for people doing them harm and the Republicans are doing Americans harm with this vote," said another Californian, Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez).

But Republicans argued that Democratic scare tactics would not have a lasting impact on voters because their plan would not decrease the quality of seniors' health care.

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"It's not going to work," said Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.), whose constituents in South Florida are largely elderly. "This thing is going to click in by the next elections and seniors are not going to be hurt.

"We'd lose the House if we were truly beating up on seniors," Shaw added. "And a lot of us would be doing something else next year."

Republicans could simply have folded their Medicare provisions into the gigantic spending-cut bill that is scheduled to be debated by Congress next year. In fact, this is the course that the Senate is following.

But House Republicans decided that Thursday's separate Medicare vote would benefit them politically.

"I'm not sure that the voters will give us credit for being courageous but I do believe they will think: 'Finally, Congress is doing the things we elected them to do.' They're finding practical solutions to our country's problems," said Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Conn.), a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee.

Recent polls indicate that so far the Democrats are winning the argument. In a Los Angeles Times poll last month, 57% of respondents said that they believed the Democrats' version of the debate; only 26% said they believed the Republicans.

"The posturing about the political consequences on the action on Medicare is interesting drama," said Theodore Marmor, a Yale University professor of public policy. "I've never seen such strutting on every side."

"It's very much a war of spin," said Drew Altman, president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based health care philanthropy. "The Democrats have been trying to paint the Republicans as cruel and uncaring; the Republicans have tried to paint the Democrats as irresponsible."

Both sides have scored some successes, political analysts said.

The Republicans have managed to convince Americans that Medicare was put on the table for a valid reason--the program's financial insolvency.

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Democrats, meanwhile, have convinced Americans that Republicans are trying to make more significant changes in the program than would be necessary just to save it.

In next year's election campaigns, however, Democrats will have a much harder time capitalizing on Thursday's Medicare reform vote if the White House ends up compromising with congressional Republicans and accepting a plan that would reduce Medicare benefits more than necessary to save the program.

"Medicare is the most politically risky part of the Republican deficit-reduction package because Medicare is very popular among seniors and their children," Marmor said. "It gives Democrats an opening. But in the end they're going to find that their President is going to compromise a bit and the waters will be muddied."

If the legislation is enacted, some Democrats' criticisms may seem less valid next year than they do now because the effects will not be immediate.

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"You will have Democrats arguing about the impact of things that aren't yet happening," Altman said. "They may be able to use the issue but I'm not sure they are going to be able to use the issue as much as they expect."

Robert Blendon, professor of health policy at Harvard University, said that Medicare had proved to be the Republicans' most unpopular initiative since they took control of Congress in last year's elections.

He said that their willingness to take on Medicare suggested that they had failed to learn the clear political lesson from President Clinton's unsuccessful attempt last year to overhaul the nation's health care system.

"Major reforms of the health care system of any type," Blendon said, "are not good for the health of politicians."

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