By Russell Berman and Erik Wasson - 03/21/12 12:25 AM EDT
House Republican leaders voiced confidence Tuesday that they will pass their budget despite unified Democratic opposition and grumbling from GOP conservatives that its proposed spending cuts are too small.
“We have the votes,” the budget architect, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), told reporters on the day he unveiled a plan to overhaul the tax code and cut $5.3 trillion in spending over a decade.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) predicted the budget resolution would receive “a strong vote of support” when it hits the House floor next week.
The plan, released with extensive fanfare on Tuesday, serves as an election-year agenda for a party hoping to hold onto its young House majority and win back the White House in November. Democrats attacked the blueprint en masse, even as they welcomed Ryan’s modified proposal to overhaul Medicare as a politically dangerous plan they hope to exploit in the fall.
Achieving the same cohesion will be close to impossible this time around, and cracks began to form almost immediately.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), a conservative member of Ryan’s Budget Committee, said he would vote against the plan, saying it broke the GOP’s “Pledge to America” and did not cut spending deeply enough. Huelskamp voted for the Ryan budget in 2011.
“It’s not good enough,” he said during an appearance with six other conservatives at an event sponsored by the Heritage Foundation.
Huelskamp said he was troubled by a lack of specificity on tax reform and the budget’s failure, in his view, to hold to spending levels that will be lower because of $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts set to take effect next year.
The half-dozen other members of the Heritage panel said they were undecided on the budget resolution.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) criticized the proposal for not cutting spending at the levels promised in the 2010 Pledge to America.
“I’m not sure if I’m going to vote for it or not,” Gohmert said. “I appreciate so much the great work of Paul Ryan, but we took a pledge a year and a half ago, and we said we would cut more than is being cut. So that’s my struggle.”
Other House conservatives appeared willing to vote for the new Ryan plan.
“I am leaning toward it,” said Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the chairman of the Republican Study Committee. “There is a lot I like about it.”
The GOP budget calls for a discretionary spending level of $1.028 trillion in fiscal 2013. That is $19 billion less than the $1.047 trillion spending cap that Republicans and Democrats agreed to as part of the debt-ceiling law known as the Budget Control Act last year.
Party leaders received better news on Tuesday when the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), endorsed the spending level even though he said he wanted it to be higher.
“It’s a workable number. We’ll make it work,” Rogers told The Hill. “While I would have preferred $1.047 trillion, $1.028 trillion is a workable number.”
The budget resolution is largely a political document without the force and effect of law, but it will establish the spending level that Republicans must adhere to in drafting the 12 annual appropriations bills.
Conservatives wanted the leadership to set an even lower level of spending, with some pushing for a cap of $931 billion.
“The leadership needed a number that they could pass on the Budget Committee,” said Rogers, who predicted Republican appropriators would support the resolution.
The increase in defense spending was key to sealing a deal with the three appropriators on the Budget panel.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), one of the panel’s three appropriators, told The Hill on Tuesday that he agreed to the new top-line number after $200 billion was added to the Pentagon’s budget over 10 years.
“I think it’s a compromise,” he said. “So you give a little bit, and you get something back.”
The Republican presidential front-runner, Mitt Romney, endorsed the Ryan plan, even though its call for collapsing the six individual tax rates to two rates of 10 percent and 25 percent more closely resembles the plan offered by his top rival, Rick Santorum.
The campaign trail embrace is a shift from last year, when Republican presidential candidates were initially hesitant to back Ryan’s plan to convert Medicare to a private system with federal “premium support.”
In the new proposal, Ryan incorporated a Medicare plan similar to the one he developed with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), which allows seniors to stay on traditional Medicare if they choose.
The change did not win Democratic support for the budget, however, which Wyden himself said he would oppose.
At the White House and on Capitol Hill, Democratic leaders criticized Ryan’s plan for ending traditional Medicare and breaking last year’s debt-ceiling agreement, both by lowering the spending level and by changing the automatic cuts scheduled to occur in 2013.
“It’s a death spiral,” said Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council. “Intentionally or unintentionally, the plan is creating a death spiral for Medicare.”
Sperling had harsh words for the Republican proposal to replace the $1.2 trillion in automatic cuts while increasing defense spending.
“It so fundamentally goes against a true bipartisan agreement,” he said. “It says to one side, ‘You don’t have to negotiate.’ “
Ryan estimated his budget would reduce next year’s deficit to $797 billion, a lower figure than the $977 billion deficit the Congressional Budget Office estimates would result from the president’s budget.
He also estimates it would reduce deficits over the next decade by $3.3 trillion more than the Obama budget.
“The core idea is that we want to get ahead of this debt crisis,” Ryan said Tuesday morning on CBS.
“We want to take all of the empty promises that our government is making and mak[e] sure that they’re not broken promises,” he said. “We want to save Medicare from bankruptcy, we want to put our debt on a pathway to balance and to pay off the debt and we want to get our economy going again.”
It is difficult to determine just how the Ryan budget would reduce deficits, however, given a lack of details in the tax section. Republicans don’t say on what income levels the new tax rates would be applied, and the budget doesn’t include specifics on the tax loopholes that would be culled as part of a reform of the tax code.
Vicki Needham contributed.