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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

We're reporting on two long-term problems and competing ways to approach them. One problem is the energy supply, which is also a short-term political issue because of high gas prices.

We begin with the question of how to make the numbers add up for Medicare. Republicans and Democrats sharply disagree on how to do that, and soon voters in upstate New York may play an unusually powerful role in the debate.

Here's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: One week from today, we'll have the results of a political test case a three-way congressional election in New York where Medicare has become a central issue. The focus is on the Republican plan to replace Medicare in the future with vouchers for beneficiaries to buy private insurance. Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi says that plan is a political boon to her party this year.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): It has served us well politically because of a race in upstate New York. New York 26 is a race we should not have had any prospects in - but Medicare has changed that whole race.

LIASSON: New York's 26th Congressional District is one of the 10 most heavily Republican in the country. But the race has become competitive since the Democrats began using Medicare to hammer the Republican, Jane Corwin, and the independent, Jack Davis, who claims to be the Tea Party candidate.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Man #1: You've earned it, worked your whole life for it. Unfortunately Jack Davis said Social Security benefits may have to be adjusted down. Worse, Jane Corwin supports a budget that essentially ends Medicare.

LIASSON: Republicans are firing right back. Just as in 2010, they're accusing Democrats of cutting Medicare.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Man #2: Kathy Hochul - a false campaign about Jane Corwin's position on Medicare, when the truth is, it's Hochul who says she would cut Medicare and Social Security.

LIASSON: The prize here is the votes of those who are retired or soon to retire. In 2010, voters over 60 were one-third of the electorate, and Republicans won their biggest share of them since the Reagan years. That's a big reason why Democrats lost the House. So now Nancy Pelosi is determined to get those seniors back - and with them the House majority.

Rep. PELOSI: We won the House of Representatives in 2006 because in 2005 President Bush thought it was a good idea to privatize - or partially privatize - Social Security. Deadly, politically. So if they want to mess with Medicare, we're here for the fight.

LIASSON: Pelosi says she and President Obama are open to making some changes to keep Medicare solvent, but they're opposed to anything that would alter the basic structure of the program. Still, the politics of Medicare aren't as simple as in the past, says Bob Blendon, who tracks public opinion on health care at Harvard.

Professor BOB BLENDON (Harvard University): The thing that has changed the political dynamic is that though people oppose the cuts for Medicare, they're very anxious to see something done about the budget deficit now and the national debt.

LIASSON: That's why Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, the author of the controversial Medicare plan, says he's heartened by polls showing Republicans have an edge with voters concerned about the debt.

At a Bloomberg breakfast, Ryan had this to say about voter reaction in his district.

Representative PAUL RYAN (Republican, Wisconsin): My town halls were phenomenally, overwhelmingly supportive - they were 80/20 crowds. Clearly, an issue like this is going to be controversial, but the vast majority of crowds that members experienced were overwhelmingly positive.

LIASSON: Every House Republican but four voted for Ryan's Medicare plan. But in the Senate, Republicans have no plans to take it up. The Republican presidential candidates have been lukewarm, and one former House Speaker Newt Gingrich - said on "Meet the Press" he opposes the Ryan plan because it was quote, "too big a jump."

Mr. NEWT GINGRICH (Former Speaker of the House): I don't think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate. I think we need a national conversation to get to a better Medicare system with more choices for seniors.

LIASSON: There's a reason for the split among Republicans, says Bob Blendon.

Prof. BLENDON: If you are running for president, I don't think that you want to find yourself in a position that could be unpopular among people who have been voting Republican in repeated elections.

LIASSON: But Republican House members, says Blendon, may have a different set of political calculations.

Prof. BLENDON: If I'm somebody who won a really aggressive primary in a Tea Party-type conservative fiscal point of view, I could be challenged if I don't do something right now about this budget deficit.

LIASSON: But doing something about the deficit means doing something about its biggest driver, Medicare, which is still political quicksand. That's why it's unlikely any big progress on the deficit will be made before the next election.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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