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GOP Tries to Heed Medicare Lessons

As both parties gear up for a heated debate over Social Security, the House GOP is studying the lessons of another controversial battle — the fight during the 108th Congress over Medicare reform.

The parallels between the 2003 skirmish and the coming conflict over Social Security are clear.

In both instances, the White House and Congressional Republicans needed to sort out their own internal divisions before they could arrive at a plan to reform an enormously popular entitlement.

In addition, altering Social Security — like changing Medicare — is viewed as an inherently dangerous venture because it requires challenging senior citizens, a well-organized demographic that votes in high numbers.

And as with Medicare, Republicans who want to modify Social Security will be required to spend at least as much time selling their latest reform plan as they spend crafting it. The Medicare drug plan passed the House with just a few votes to spare, after intense leadership pressure. Many expect the fight for Social Security legislation to be similarly nip-and-tuck.

“In 2003 and 2004 we learned that you have to have message discipline,” said Pete Jeffries, communications director for Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). “All the players and all the surrogates have to be on the same page.”

Efforts are already under way to ensure that Republicans at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are working from the same playbook. House GOP leaders and Republican Ways and Means Committee members will head to the White House this afternoon to discuss a strategy for Social Security with President Bush.

On the message front, the House Republican Conference has already begun emulating its strategy of two years ago, setting up “radio rows” of conservative talk show hosts — including one today in Room HC-7 — and encouraging Members to hold town-hall meetings and workshops in their districts.

GOP Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio) said the key lessons of the Medicare fight were to “start early, mobilize your coalitions, and engage your constituents.”

Republicans pointed to district events as a key to their prior success on Medicare.

“We told Members, you can do lots of speeches and suggested events, like going to a pharmacy in your district,” said Conference Vice Chairman Jack Kingston (Ga.). “With Social Security, you can go straight into a nursing home, or, say, a veterans group. … You also have the privilege of the frank [to send out mail], so you can go out and insulate yourself from some of the ludicrous charges out there.”

The use of district events and outlets such as talk radio allowed Republicans to control their message better than they might have if they had relied solely on D.C.-based media.

“The concerted effort to get Members talking about it in their districts helped do an end-run around the national press that may not have been as positive,” said a House GOP aide.

But as pleased as they were with those efforts, Republicans also realized during the last Congress that all the town-hall meetings in the world are unlikely to have the same impact as a few well-choreographed presidential events.

“What we learned from Medicare is that … you need the bully pulpit of the White House day-in and day-out moving the message,” said Jeffries.

Many House Republicans believe that President Bush did not provide them enough cover on the prescription drug issue, both as the measure was being crafted and when Democrats began their onslaught of criticism after it became law.

The Bush administration “didn’t do a clear roadmap beforehand,” said a House GOP leadership aide. “Then after it passed, the White House kind of walked away from it and forced us to sell it.”

Some members of the administration, most notably then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, touted the Medicare bill, and executive branch officials often appeared as experts at Members’ district events. But House Republicans believe that on Social Security, it must be Bush himself who takes the role of lead spokesman.

Just as they need to coordinate their communications efforts after the fact, GOP Members and officials said it was imperative that they not allow their message to be diffused while the policy is being crafted — especially right now, when each day’s newspaper seems to feature a different Republican floating a different Social Security fix.

“Clearly there was a basic understanding that people needed better access to prescription drugs,” said a Republican strategist who worked on the Medicare bill. “What happened in the process of putting together the bill was that sometimes we drifted off into process instead of keeping the focus on the critical message. Process began to overwhelm outcomes.”

For many in the GOP, fiscal discipline equals message discipline — something that was difficult to maintain when the Medicare bill’s price tag kept rising. “The numbers coming back higher than expected made it rough,” said a Republican leadership aide. “It was tougher to sell to our conservative audiences.”

Off the Hill, Republicans hope to do a better job than they did with Medicare putting together coalitions and enlisting credible surrogates to make their case for them. The seniors’ group AARP, for example, gave the GOP crucial support when the Medicare bill was being debated but then did not do as much to tout the measure after passage as Republicans had hoped.

“I didn’t think we had enough support from outside groups, whether that be people on K Street spending money to work the grass roots and help build public acceptance or other groups,” Jeffries said. “I think that will be different this time around.”

The real test of the effectiveness of the GOP’s Social Security effort will come in November 2006. Republicans argue that last year’s results proved that they could tackle entitlement programs without suffering at the polls.

“We didn’t lose Members because of Medicare,” said Kingston, pointing out that neither of the two GOP incumbents who were defeated in 2004 — Reps. Phil Crane (Ill.) and Max Burns (Ga.) — lost because of the prescription drug issue.

At the same time, however, it isn’t clear whether the party actually picked up any seats because of Medicare. During the electoral home stretch, few Republicans in competitive seats made their support of the measure a centerpiece of their campaigns.

“Once we passed it, [some] Members shied away from it,” a GOP leadership aide said. “Members didn’t exactly run on the Medicare bill.”

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