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Johnson rips, Thune defends 'Ryan budget'

Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., decried a House Republican budget proposal, saying it would "end Medicare as we know it" on Wednesday. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said he plans to vote for the so-called "Ryan budget," saying the controversial Medicare pro...

Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., decried a House Republican budget proposal, saying it would "end Medicare as we know it" on Wednesday.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said he plans to vote for the so-called "Ryan budget," saying the controversial Medicare proposal it contains was first brought forth by a liberal think tank.

Debate over the budget set forth by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, is the hot ticket among the Beltway's chattering class and has veered into cartoon territory since it was introduced in April.

One TV ad shows a Republican pushing a wheelchair-bound elderly woman to a cliff and unceremoniously tipping her out of the chair, sending her falling to her death.

The Republican-led House passed Ryan's budget in April.

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Thune said Wednesday that Ryan's proposal to curb Medicare spending borrows heavily from a task force proposal set forth during President Bill Clinton's administration in the late 1990s, which itself relied on a plan drawn up by the liberal Brookings Institution think tank. (The task force, set up by the Republican-led Congress, ultimately did not endorse the plan.)

"I will probably vote for the Ryan budget because it at least makes an honest effort to address spending and debt problems the country has and to reform entitlements," Thune said. "It's not perfect. I would probably do this slightly differently, but it is courageous."

Ryan did interviews Wednesday and said his plan has been grossly distorted and objected to the characterization of it as a "voucher program."

He said a more accurate comparison would be to the widely lauded health insurance program provided to federal employees. Under that plan, employees choose from a menu of plans selected by an administrator and are provided with a subsidy, or "premium support."

No senior could be denied coverage under his proposal, Ryan said. And seniors would not deal directly with insurance companies, he said. They would deal with the new Medicare program, which would deal with and negotiate with insurance companies.

His plan would implement means testing, where a sliding scale would be used to determine how much "premium support" an individual would receive based on income. In other words, the rich would pay more for their insurance and the poor would pay less.

"It is going to be the rich seniors impacted because the high-income seniors will get less benefits in the future," Thune said.

In addition, Ryan's plan would not affect anyone now over 55.

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Without some Medicare reform, Thune said, the very existence of the program is at stake.

"For those under 55, this guarantees them a benefit in the future which they otherwise won't have because this program is destined to go bankrupt," he said. "The real tragedy, the real failure, is inaction. That is going to lead to no Medicare benefit for future generations. That is the point. We have to decide how we are going to fix this program."

Johnson said he cannot support this attempt to curb Medicare spending, saying it would double what seniors pay for health care when it is scheduled to take effect in 2022 -- from $5,700 per person to an average of $11,500 per person.

"That's right, every senior can count on paying $5,800 more every year," he said.

In addition, Johnson said insurance companies would decide "what tests and treatments doctors can provide to seniors."

Furthermore, Ryan's budget proposal would re-open Medicare's prescription drug "doughnut hole," which President Obama's healthcare reform closed, Johnson said.

Finally, Johnson said he can't support asking seniors to pay more while oil companies continue to receive taxpayer subsidies.

"The House Republican budget plan is bad medicine for seniors. No sacrifice is asked of big oil companies or of America's millionaires or billionaires," Johnson said. "It cuts funding to pre-World War II levels and pays for it by ending Medicare. The House budget continues flowing taxpayer dollars to oil company coffers like a blown-out oil well."

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Both senators agreed that no real progress will be made on a budget agreement until Republicans and Democrats can work together, noting that both the Ryan budget and President Obama's budget stand almost no chance of being adopted.

Each blamed the opposing party for the stalemate.

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