Republicans ready to forget Romney and embrace Rep. Ryan on Medicare

Mitt Romney’s Medicare budget might be fading away just as quickly as Romney himself.

During the campaign, candidate Romney repeatedly hammered President Obama for cutting $716 billion from Medicare as part of his signature healthcare law. Romney pledged to repeal those cuts in a break from his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

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Ryan, the House Budget Committee Chairman, had preserved Obama’s Medicare cuts in two consecutive budget proposals that repealed the rest of the Affordable Care Act. Ryan is now back at work crafting his next budget, and Republicans on his committee say the $716 billion in Medicare cuts will likely survive.

Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) said the $716 billion cut is part of the committee’s over-arching plan to save and reform Medicare. He said he doesn’t expect Ryan to back away from any part of that goal just because Romney was on a different page.

“Something could have happened during that experience at the top of the ticket where he said, ‘Golly, I am now thinking of some new and different ways to crack this same nut.’ I would certainly welcome all of those new ideas, but again, this is something we've been working very hard at. This is a sound proposal,” Woodall said.

Woodall said it’s hard to predict the specifics of next year’s budget outline because so much could change during negotiations over the looming “fiscal cliff.” But he praised Ryan’s leadership in advancing a plan for Medicare and said he doesn’t expect the committee to “dodge” that effort.

“I don't think you can offer a serious budget without trying to save the Medicare program for another generation and two and three,” Woodall said. “So yes, Paul Ryan is a serious chairman, we think we're a serious committee. I would not imagine us doing anything that dodges that responsibility.”

Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), a strongly conservative doctor who had Ryan’s backing in a failed leadership bid, also said the House GOP has laid a solid foundation for Medicare reform. Ryan’s budget restructured Obama’s Medicare cuts to strengthen the program, he said.

“My preference is our budget,” Price said when asked whether he supports Romney’s approach to the Medicare cuts or Ryan’s.

Attacking Obama over the $716 billion in Medicare cuts was at times a difficult needle for the Romney campaign to thread, largely because the savings were the only part of “ObamaCare” that Ryan didn’t want to repeal. Former President Bill Clinton noted the contradiction at the Democratic convention, saying it “takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.”

Before joining the campaign, Ryan answered that charge by saying Medicare did need to be cut, but the savings should be reinvested in Medicare rather than used to pay for the new benefits in Obama’s healthcare law. The specific reductions weren’t the problem, Ryan said — it was how Obama used them.

Price echoed that criticism last week, saying Ryan’s budget “moved” Obama’s Medicare savings so that they wouldn’t be spent on new programs.

“In order to make it so that those bad things don’t happen, you’ve got to go get those cuts. So the line in the budget is, you’ve got to go get those cuts and move them,” Price said.

But Romney went further than Ryan, saying he would repeal the Medicare cuts and restore the $716 billion in spending — a move that would have shortened Medicare’s lifespan, not lengthened it, as Romney suggested.

It was a helpful political tactic, but substantively, it was a pledge to raise entitlement spending by $716 billion — from a candidate who promised to cut entitlements, and picked the entitlement-slashing Ryan as his running mate.

Romney’s rhetoric rankled some conservatives and supporters of Ryan’s more dramatic Medicare overhaul, who feared Romney was making it harder to make badly needed spending cuts in the future.

When pressed about their differing positions during the campaign, Romney and Ryan simply said that because Romney was at the top of the ticket, his approach to Medicare would carry the day.

Now, though, Republicans are largely casting off Romney as a failed candidate with no real claim to the party’s political or intellectual future, while Ryan is still seen as a political star who could run again for national office. And among his fellow Republicans, Ryan’s approach to Medicare is also back on top.

“What I think is we're going to be fairly consistent on our budget,” said Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), another Budget Committee member. “What we tried to lay out in Budget, I don't think is unrealistic … What we build on comes on the foundation we've already laid.”