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GOP lawmakers eye voucher-like system for Medicare to ax deficits

| Sunday, March 3, 2013, 7:12 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Fired up as once-unimaginable spending cuts start to slice the federal budget, Republicans are starting a new phase in their austerity campaign: resurrecting the party's cost-cutting plan to turn Medicare into a voucher-like system for future seniors.

Despite public uncertainty about the $85 billion in sequester cuts, Republicans now believe they have momentum to ask Americans to make tough choices on Medicare as rising health care costs combine with an aging population to form a growing part of future deficits.

That effort will form the backdrop as the White House and congressional Republicans enter their next round in the budget wars: keeping the government funded through Sept. 30. Unless they make a deal by March 27, the government could run out of money and be forced to shutter offices and curtail services.

President Obama and Republican leaders signaled that they are eager to avoid another bruising battle and federal shutdown as both sides position themselves for the next major pressure point, in late spring or early summer, when the government faces a potential debt default.

Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the former Republican vice presidential nominee, is preparing a budget that aims to balance revenues and spending in 10 years. His effort has run afoul of the GOP vow not to change Medicare, the federal health care program for seniors and disabled individuals, for those now 55 or older.

Medicare eligibility begins at age 65. Ryan's approach would transform the benefits program into one that would provide a fixed amount of money in a voucher that seniors could apply to the cost of buying private health insurance or traditional Medicare.

Throughout last year's presidential campaign, the GOP promised not to change Medicare for today's seniors — only the next generation. But Republicans familiar with the number-crunching in Ryan's budget committee say balancing the budget may not be possible unless the changes start for those who are now 56.

Critics say Ryan's plan would shift health care costs from the government and onto seniors. Democrats who sharply criticized Ryan's proposal during the 2012 campaign say voters rejected his arguments when they re-elected Obama.

Even some Republicans who support Ryan's proposal are wary.

“Is it going to be difficult? It's the third rail. Sparks are coming off before you even touch it,” said Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich., as he showed a photo of his grandchildren on his smartphone last week. “I want them to say Grandpa tried.”

Ryan's budget proposal is expected to lock in $1.2 trillion in sequester-linked cuts over the next decade, while also reducing growth in costs of Medicare and Medicaid, which is the health program for the poor, disabled and seniors in nursing homes. Other safety net programs, including food stamps and school lunches, also would be targeted.

Some budget experts, including Republicans like Rep. Mike Simpson of Idaho, are skeptical that Ryan can produce a balanced budget in 10 years. Others suggest it may be easier now with the tax hike on wealthy Americans that the White House won during the recent fiscal cliff crisis.

If Republicans determine they must step back from their 2012 campaign promise not to change Medicare for those older than 55, some lawmakers said they can pivot because a year has lapsed.

“When you sit down and explain the situation, people understand,” said Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Calif.

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