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Republican frets over party's Medicare plan

By Kim Dixon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A conservative Republican lawmaker backed away from her party's flagship proposal to revamp the Medicare government health program on Sunday, saying it shifts too much of the cost to the elderly.

A controversial plank in the 2012 budget passed by the Republican-led House of Representatives last month gives senior citizens vouchers to buy private health insurance, remaking Medicare, which serves more than 40 million elderly and disabled people.

U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann, who is considering a run for the presidency in 2012, is the latest in her party to fret about a plan that so fundamentally alters the popular insurance program.

"One position that I'm concerned about is shifting the cost burden to senior citizens," Bachmann said on "Fox News Sunday." "Seniors are saying, 'Look, I'm not in a position to be able to handle that.' I also share that real fear."

Bachmann is a favorite of the fiscally conservative Tea Party movement.

The plan, which has drawn protests from voters in town hall meetings recently, has little chance of passing the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Still, the elderly are a major political force and Medicare's popularity makes the idea risky for lawmakers eyeing the 2012 elections.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates the Republican proposal would hike costs paid by seniors to about 70 percent of spending, from the current 25 percent of costs they now shoulder.

The cost of Medicare is expected to balloon in coming years, as health care costs rise faster than inflation and as millions of baby boomers enter the program.

The proposal is the creation of U.S. Representative Paul Ryan, who told the ABC program "This Week" he does not worry about the political fallout.

"I hear this all the time from the political people, from the pundits and the pollsters that this could be -- this could hurt us politically," Ryan said. "I don't care about that. What I care about is fixing this country and getting this debt situation under control."

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham called Ryan's plan bold but acknowledged it would not pass the Senate.

"I like what Ryan did. He was brave," Graham said on "Fox News Sunday." "But, at the end of the day, his plan is not going to make it through the Senate."

Democrat Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, plans to hold a vote on the Ryan budget, in part to get Republicans on the record on some of the more politically sensitive elements.

(Editing by Doina Chiacu)