So far, Medicare debate is muted here

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ and JEREMY HERB , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: May 3, 2011 - 11:48 PM

Is "Minnesota Nice" at play? Or are politicians avoiding the issue?

WASHINGTON -- Members of Congress who voted for a Republican plan to overhaul Medicare are getting an earful from constituents back home. But few have had to deal with the situation Minnesota Republican Chip Cravaack recently confronted.

Cravaack had to face his 80-year-old father.

"He had questions," said the freshman House member. "He's hearing one side that says, 'Chip Cravaack is going to throw old people out in the street.'"

Just as their Democratic colleagues suffered through eruptions of Tea Party anger at town hall meetings over health care, Republicans in states like Florida, Wisconsin and even North Dakota are fending off the fear and anger of constituents unsure of what Medicare changes could mean for them.

But while other states have experienced heated public shouting matches over the GOP plan to turn Medicare into a voucher or "premium support" plan, Cravaack and much of the rest of the Minnesota delegation have yet to face the general public in person.

Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Tim Walz, both Democrats, visited senior centers to talk Medicare. Others have held small meetings on topics like education and business. Democrat Rep. Keith Ellison and Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen traveled overseas during the recent spring break -- Paulsen to China and Ellison to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Rep. Michele Bachmann, exploring a bid for the GOP presidential nomination, flew to South Carolina and New Hampshire.

So far in Minnesota, the only public forums on the Republican deficit-reduction plan have been held by U.S. Rep. John Kline, a five-term GOP congressman closely tied-in with the House GOP leadership. He held three low-key hearings of about 50 people each in Chanhassen, Cannon Falls and Red Wing.

The relative quiet has been attributed in part to "Minnesota Nice," but also to the apparent reluctance of lawmakers to relive the fractious town hall meetings of President Obama's health care overhaul.

The contrast has been noted by Democrats who took heat during the heath care debate, particularly former U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, who was unseated by Cravaack in a campaign rooted in Oberstar's alleged failure to meet constituents.

Cravaack accuses Democrats of "scaring seniors" about the Republican budget plan, saying he "will talk to anyone who wants to hear the facts." But Democrats have wasted no time targeting him and other freshman Republicans across the nation.

"Congressman Chip Cravaack looks like a nice young man," goes the script of a new television ad sponsored by Americans United for Change, "but on April 15 he voted to end Medicare and its guaranteed health care benefits. ..."

Cravaack contends that the Republican plan by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin would save Medicare by putting it on a solid financial footing -- a talking point also made by Kline in his three public meetings. The common thread, according to Kline spokesman Troy Young, was that people are fed up with a "mammoth mountain of debt."

DFLer Coleen Rowley, a former FBI agent who once ran against Kline, attended his Red Wing town hall. She said that while there were some challenges to "tax cuts for the wealthy" and other special interests, the tone was largely "Minnesota Nice."

'Nothing will change for you'

The scene has been different elsewhere.

In Florida, freshman Republican Rep. Allen West, a popular Tea Party figure, faced down hecklers in a crowd of about 500 that otherwise was described as generally supportive. Another GOP freshman, Rick Berg of North Dakota, got stern enough questions from Bismarck seniors last week that the Democratic National Committee sent out a video of the event.

Ryan has already held at least four public meetings in his southeastern Wisconsin district, including a raucous capacity-crowd town hall in Kenosha that he exited under police escort surrounded by protesters.

Part of the reason members of Congress have grown wearier of town halls since the summer of 2009 is that attendees can pepper them with questions from any side.

"A lot of this is the ability of politicians -- and I will admit, it's on both sides -- wanting to control things," Rowley said. Politicians, she said, either seek friendly audiences, or friendly audiences seek them.

For example, a local Tea Party group jumped on Kline's Chanhassen event, proclaiming it a "Tea Party Town Hall w/ Congressman John Kline" on its Facebook page. The group, SW Metro Tea Party, was prepared to grill Kline not on cuts to Medicare but on why he voted for the budget compromise last month.

'I'm meeting with people'

If Minnesotans have had few chances to be heard on the Medicare debate, Democrats say it is particularly unfortunate in Cravaack's northern district, which has the highest median age in the state. "The origin of Cravaack's campaign was that Oberstar didn't hold enough town meetings," said former Oberstar campaign manager Bryan Yunis. "Now Cravaack takes a vote to end Medicare as we know it, and he refuses to hold any town meetings."

Cravaack says he's held three "tele-town hall" meetings, where constituents can call in. He also is scheduling three in-person town halls in May. He said he hadn't held any over the two-week spring recess because he was meeting with small businesses and other groups.

"I'm meeting with people," he said. "I will talk to anyone who wants to hear the facts. I'm a numbers guy. Let's get rid of the rhetoric and talk numbers. The numbers say that Medicare will be insolvent ... if we do nothing. By doing something, we're preserving Medicare for our seniors."

But Cravaack's toughest sell so far has been his own father back home in Ohio, where he grew up. Hearing the Democratic attacks, Cravaack said, his father "was just confused."

Seeking to ease his father's concerns, Cravaack echoed the Republican guarantee that Ryan's changes would not affect anyone over the age of 55.

"I'm saying, 'No, Dad, this is going to preserve your Medicare,'" Cravaack recounted. "'Nothing will change for you.'"

For those sent out on the private insurance market with government vouchers, it remains to be seen whether they would be better or worse off. Democrats say seniors' costs could double under the Ryan plan. Republicans say the plan calls for means-testing voucher amounts, meaning some would pay more and some less.

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.

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