While praising parts of GOP vice presidential pick Paul Ryan's budget blueprints, Republican congressional candidate Keith Rothfus would not say Wednesday if he would have voted in favor of the conservative budgets, which include fundamental changes to Medicare in future years.
The cautious comments by the Sewickley attorney underscore the high stakes revolving around the senior health insurance program not only in his 12th District race against U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, D-Johnstown, but the presidential race as well.
When the GOP-controlled House approved Mr. Ryan's budgets in 2011 and 2012, "I did not have an opportunity to join the discussion and the dialogue. I was not there," Mr. Rothfus said Wednesday, before joining other Republicans in denouncing President Barack Obama's Medicare plans. "I appreciate the broad framework he's coming from, particularly in the context of four straight annual $1 trillion deficits, but I want to have input on something I'm voting for."
When presumed GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney chose the House budget committee chairman as his running mate Saturday, it drew new attention to Mr. Ryan's proposals to partially replace Medicare with vouchers for private coverage starting in 2023. Democrats said the Romney-Ryan team would gut the popular program while Republicans faulted Mr. Obama's own health care bill for cutting more than $700 billion from the program through reduced reimbursements to health providers and other budget efficiencies.
Those same debates came to Pittsburgh Wednesday in dueling news conferences by presidential proxies.
Mr. Rothfus was joined by U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler, and former GOP congressman Phil English of Erie. "The oldest trick in the book is for the other party to accuse the Republican party of being in favor of slashing Medicare and eliminating the program," said Mr. English, who lost re-election in 2006. "The rhetoric we're hearing today is absolutely shameful and extremely disappointing, because we need to have an adult discussion on how we're going to make Medicare sustainable."
Democrats claimed Romney supporters were trying to scare seniors about Mr. Obama's bill to deflect attention from Mr. Ryan's proposals.
"I'm not talking scare tactics. I'm talking actual numbers," said former Clinton administration Social Security administrator Jim Roosevelt Jr., the grandson of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, at an Obama event in the Hill District. "Social Security and Medicare are strong programs. We can make them stronger, but not by destroying them and saying 'You're on your own.' "
Mr. Romney distanced himself from Mr. Ryan's Medicare plans Wednesday, telling CBS-TV "his campaign is my campaign now, and we're on exactly the same page. And my campaign has made it very clear: The president's cuts of $716 billion to Medicare -- those cuts are to going to be restored if I become president and Paul Ryan becomes vice president."
For budget balance, both Mr. Obama's health bill and Mr. Ryan's budget proposals lean on the same roughly $700 billion in Medicare efficiencies. The difference for Republicans is Mr. Ryan's plan would eliminate the rest of Mr. Obama's bill, and Mr. Ryan's proposed voucher system would not touch current retirees, only those joining Medicare in a decade.
"Yeah, we gotta address some long-term issues with Medicare, but for anyone 55 and older the program is staying as it is," Mr. Rothfus said.
Democrats note the Ryan plan also ends subsidies in the Obama health bill to close the so-called "doughnut hole" on the cost of prescription drugs.
"It's a complete lie to say the Ryan plan does not affect people over 55," Critz campaign spokesman Mike Mikus said. "Keith Rothfus knows he's on the wrong side of Western Pennsylvanians on Medicare, and he's doing everything he can to avoid the facts."
Mr. Critz has long said he would have voted against Mr. Obama's "Obamacare" bill even though he supports some of its planks, such as providing coverage for those with pre-existing health conditions, or keeping young adults on their parents' plans.
Mr. Rothfus said "when you vote for President Obama's failed health care takeover more than 20 times, you might as well start calling it Critzcare."state
Tim McNulty: email@example.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns.