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Fight over tax reform would dominate first year of a Romney presidency

Mitt Romney’s selection of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) for vice president made the 2012 election about big domestic policy changes, especially Ryan’s plan to transform Medicare. 

But getting a polarized Washington to enact reforms quickly will be a huge task even if the GOP takes control of the Senate.

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Washington experts and congressional aides from both parties say that for political and procedural reasons, year one of the Romney-Ryan administration would be much more about taxes and “ObamaCare” than about Medicare, let alone Ryan’s ideas on Social Security. 

With the Ryan choice, any fear or hope that Romney would pivot to Obama-style stimulus spending after the election is effectively dead. 

But enacting the elements of Ryan’s House-passed budget will rely on arcane budget procedures — and could depend on the ability of Ryan to cut some deals with vulnerable Democrats, experts said.


After a November win, Romney and Ryan would have to pressure a lame-duck Congress and the Obama administration to turn away from the “fiscal cliff” of tax increases and spending cuts set to hit Jan. 1. Experts expect the new team will be able to gain at least a six-month reprieve by arguing they need time to put their vision — newly mandated by voters — in place. 

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Congressional Budget Office director and adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during his 2008 presidential bid, said Romney’s first task after inauguration will be repealing President Obama’s healthcare reform law.

“That is the first thing they have to do,” he said. “They will then focus on tax reform. We need to grow more rapidly.”

Holtz-Eakin said Romney and Ryan would not likely reform Medicare without first courting bipartisan support, however. 

“If Ryan-Romney win, they would certainly pursue a major tax cut plan,” Bob Bixby of the anti-deficit pressure group The Concord Coalition agreed. “It would be very difficult to do entitlement reform and tax reform at the same time.”

He said the key variable is the size of a GOP Senate majority after the elections, and whether Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — who could become the chamber’s majority leader if Republicans capture the majority there — can spare some defections on entitlements. 

When the 2012 Ryan budget came up for a vote in the Senate this year, five Republicans voted against it. 

The budget from Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, offers future seniors a choice of staying in traditional fee-for-service Medicare or opting out and receiving a government subsidy to buy a pre-approved private policy. 

GOP naysayers Sens. Scott Brown (Mass.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Dean Heller (Nev.) are looking to return next year, as is Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who felt the plan did not cut enough spending. 

Conservative Brian Darling of The Heritage Foundation predicted that Romney and Ryan would use budget reconciliation procedures to pass both tax reform and Medicare changes, to bypass a Senate Democratic filibuster. 

Once both the House and Senate have passed a budget, Republicans could use a fast-tracked reconciliation bill to enact major policies. This type of bill only needs 51 votes to pass in the Senate, rather than the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.

“After setting up a filibuster-proof reconciliation vehicle for tax reform and entitlement reform, the negotiations would begin to see what the Republicans could get passed in a 2013 Congress,” he said.

Bill Hoagland, a former Senate Budget GOP staff director, agreed that Romney and Ryan would try to pass everything “you could possibly cram in” to a budget reconciliation bill. 

But he warned reconciliation could be difficult for technical reasons.

Even though the process was used to pass the 2003 Bush-era tax cuts, which increased the federal deficit, it is by no means a given that Senate rules would allow a tax reform plan that adds to the deficit, he said. 

Democrats said they will make political hay out of any attempt to offset tax reforms with cuts to social programs like food stamps. 

Hoagland said that using reconciliation to pass Medicare reforms faces bigger hurdles. 

The Ryan plan involves authorizing-type legislation to set up a system of government-approved private plans. The Senate’s Byrd Rule could be raised against this on the floor, as authorizing on a reconciliation bill is not permitted. 

On top of this, the Ryan plan does not affect seniors for 10 years. Reconciliation bills under current rules only deal with changes in a 10-year budget window.

Because tax reform will involve eliminating popular tax breaks, it is more likely that the new administration will seek a deal, other experts said. This could put Ryan in the key spot of negotiating, as Romney would risk conservative ire if he tried to do a deal without Ryan’s seal of approval. 

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) this summer laid out a blueprint for tax reform, and he and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) plan to work together on a plan no matter who wins in the fall. 

The stumbling block is whether tax reform raises any new revenue to reduce the deficit, as Democrats are insisting. 

Scott Lilly, a former Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, now at the Center for American Progress, indicated Romney could get some bipartisan cooperation on tax cuts. 

“There are likely to be few Democrats who go along with a wide range of things,” he predicted. 

Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense said Democratic senators up for reelection would be prime targets for wooing. These include Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).

Holtz-Eakin noted that Ryan collaborated with House Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) to try to move a type of line-item veto bill and said those seeing Ryan as a hardliner are making a mistake. 

But Lilly sees the possibility that a more limited role for Ryan could come about, especially if Romney comes to view his ideology as a liability. “I see the guy as a visionary and as an ideologue. I have seen very little evidence that he compromises.”