Rep. Webster Defends GOP Plan To Change Medicare

Florida freshman Rep. Daniel Webster bucked the Tea Party line recently and voted to support the House spending deal pushed by Speaker John Boehner. Days later, the Republican also voted to support a GOP plan to privatize Medicare — an issue of special interest to Florida seniors.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Members of Congress are also busy explaining themselves this week. Most are back in their districts for Easter break and many are holding town hall meetings.

For House Republicans it is the first time since some key votes - including one approving a budget that outlines significant changes to Medicare.

Yesterday, Florida Republican Daniel Webster held a town hall meeting where the crowd included NPR's Greg Allen.

GREG ALLEN: Dan Webster is a freshman congressman, but no political neophyte. He served 28 years in Florida's legislature before unseating Democrat Alan Grayson in last fall's election. Here in his home district, he has lots of friends.

Mr. GENE HAWKINS: I'm so proud of what you're doing. I'm so glad we got you in that race.

ALLEN: Gene Hawkins, husband of Florida's late Senator Paula Hawkins, was one of those attending Webster's town meeting in Orlando. Webster has been in Congress now for just three months, but as a member of a large and influential Republican freshman class, he says he feels he's making a difference.

Representative DANIEL WEBSTER (Republican, Florida): We're showing that we're going to get this jobs economy - and the economy going by just cutting spending. And we believe we can get the budget under control and our debt under control by cutting spending. And that's the focus, and I think it's going to work out good.

ALLEN: Webster says he was happy to support the recent spending plan that cuts $38 billion from this year's budget. Many other freshman Republicans voted against it. But the vote he was repeatedly called on to defend yesterday was the one in support of the plan put together by House budget chief Paul Ryan. Its most controversial provision, a dramatic overhaul of Medicare that cuts spending and benefits.

In an interview, he said it's a tough budget decision but one that can't be avoided.

Rep. WEBSTER: We cannot keep going. Medicare is going to be broken by the year 2020, which is just nine years away, and - at least Part A - and we've got to do something about it.

ALLEN: In front of a standing room-only audience of some 300 people, Webster puts up charts to talk about the deficit and efforts to bring it under control.

Rep. WEBSTER: And so there's a problem within the entitlement programs, which are the mandatory spending. The Ryan budget, which you may have heard, quote, is just named after the budget chair, Congressman Ryan, put forth...

(Soundbite of booing and cheering)

ALLEN: The audience erupts in a mixture of boos and cheers. It's a far different crowd than at town meetings Webster held earlier in the year, where the Tea Party had a visible and vocal presence. There were some Tea Party supporters at Webster's town meeting but they were outnumbered by others who came to show their displeasure with the congressman's support for the Ryan budget plan.

Maria Reynolds asked him how he could support a plan that cuts Medicare while at the same time lowering taxes for business.

Ms. MARIA REYNOLDS: And what that does is you're going to give them that tax break to take away Medicare from me. I'm at that age where I wouldn't get it. How do you think - and I have pre-existing problems. What insurance company is going to insure me? You tell me.

ALLEN: Congressman Webster told her without the overhaul, Medicare may be insolvent and unable to provide her with any coverage when she turns 65. Many in the audience weren't happy with that response, or with the large spending cuts Webster says are unavoidable. Several times he was asked why, along with spending cuts, won't Congress consider raising taxes?

Rep. WEBSTER: In an economy that we have today, I'm not really in favor of raising taxes, because to me we need to get people back to work and the more we start taxing people, the less opportunity...

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

ALLEN: There were several disruptions during yesterday's town meeting. At one point, an Orlando City policeman providing security asked the crowd to calm down and keep the discussion civil.

Outside, Sue Costerline was holding a sign protesting Webster's support for the Ryan budget.

Ms. SUE COSTERLINE: When people realize what they're up to - and a lot of people still don't realize it - when they realize what they're up to, there will be a - the sleeping giant is awakening.

ALLEN: This is a congressional district almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, one where Webster next year is all but guaranteed a tough reelection bid. He's one of 25 House Republicans already targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It began last week running an ad in his district that accuses him of voting to end Medicare.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Orlando.

INSKEEP: Congressman Webster is not the only lawmaker facing questions about Medicare. The man who authored the Republican budget plan is Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Ryan received praise from many pundits but has been getting a more mixed response back home. Many people at his town hall meetings in recent days were supportive while others booed loudly as Ryan advocated lower taxes for the wealthy.

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