Backing away from Medicare privatization

BACKING AWAY FROM MEDICARE PRIVATIZATION…. Just last week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was asked about his caucus’ budget plan, which included, among other things, the elimination of Medicare. The Speaker said he supports the agenda, but added, “I’m not wedded to one single idea.”

It was the first meaningful hint that Republicans may not be fully prepared to go all the way in support of their own radical vision. The Washington Post‘s Lori Montgomery reports today that GOP leaders now appear to be backing away even faster than expected.

Senior Republicans conceded Wednesday that a deal is unlikely on a contentious plan to overhaul Medicare and offered to open budget talks with the White House by focusing on areas where both parties can agree, such as cutting farm subsidies.

On the eve of debt-reduction talks led by Vice President Biden, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) said Republicans remain convinced that reining in federal retirement programs is the key to stabilizing the nation’s finances over the long term. But he said Republicans recognize they may need to look elsewhere to achieve consensus after President Obama “excoriated us” for a proposal to privatize Medicare.

Republicans are certainly entitled to their spin, but I have a hunch the president’s excoriation had less to do with the GOP’s change of heart than polls (Americans hate the Republican agenda) and two weeks of town-hall meetings (angry constituents gave GOP lawmakers an earful).

Regardless of the motivation, though, Montgomery’s report suggests Republican leaders, at least for now, are scurrying away from their hard-right line and embracing a more “conciliatory tone.”

That search could start, Cantor said, with a list of GOP proposals that would save $715 billion over the next decade by ending payments to wealthy farmers, limiting lawsuits against doctors, and expanding government auctions of broadcast spectrum to telecommunications companies, among other items.

Democrats said they were encouraged by the move, which could smooth the way to a compromise allowing Congress to raise the legal limit on government borrowing and avoid a national default.

Obviously, we’ll need to wait for more details, but at this point, the shift seems encouraging. There are, however, some angles to keep an eye on, and two jump out right away.

The first is that senior Republican officials may be prepared to narrow the scope of their demands, but it remains to be seen whether the GOP’s rank-and-file agree. As we’ve seen in recent months, party leaders aren’t always the ones doing the leading.

The other is that Republicans, if they are prepared to scrap their Medicare privatization plan, made a terrible strategic decision when it came to pursuing their agenda. They knew ending Medicare would be unpopular, they knew Democrats would never go for it, but they voted for it anyway. Now GOP leaders are prepared to negotiate it away, which makes sense, but what about the 235 House Republicans — 98% of the caucus — who stuck their necks out and voted for this ridiculous agenda because their leaders asked them to?

The attack ads they’ll face next year will be brutal — and accurate — and they’ll have nothing to show for their risk.