Boehner, Ryan gamble on pledge to balance the budget in 10 years

Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) pledge to back a Republican budget that balances within 10 years raises the political stakes for his party and sets up another major test of his leadership.

Democrats eyeing a takeover of the House in 2014 view the move as a gift, since the GOP budget plan will likely make deeper cuts to popular government programs that any leadership-backed blueprint has before.

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Boehner will rely heavily on his budget chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), to help him navigate the treacherous waters of drafting the budget plan and selling it to members.

The Speaker committed to a 10-year target on Tuesday to secure conservative backing for a short-term suspension of the debt limit. The tactic succeeded, but could backfire this spring if he cannot pass a more austere budget out of the House.

“I have no doubt that we’re going to do our work,” the Speaker said in a floor speech Wednesday before the House approved the debt-limit extension on a bipartisan vote. “We’re committed to doing a budget and a 10-year plan to solve our budget crisis and to balance our budget. And frankly, I think it’s time for the Senate, and the White House, to produce a budget that will balance over the next 10 years.”

The Republican-passed budget in 2012, authored by Ryan, called for steep discretionary spending cuts and an overhaul of Medicare and Medicaid, but did not reach balance until close to 2040.

Moving the target up by two decades without raising taxes will require either deeper cuts to discretionary spending or changes to Medicare that would affect people who are closer to retirement age.

Steeper discretionary cuts are the most likely course for Ryan, and would give Democrats a new line of attack as they try to win back the majority.

“Challenging to say the least,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), a subcommittee chairman on the House Appropriations Committee, said when asked about the difficulty of passing a more ambitious budget blueprint.

“If you ask everybody here, they’d like to get to balance tomorrow. That would be really draconian,” Simpson said. “The quicker you try to do it, the more dramatic the cuts have to be, and that will make it more challenging to get through, for sure.”

Simpson has advocated for a budget deal that cuts spending, reforms entitlement programs and raises additional revenue, but Ryan and other Republican leaders have already ruled out new tax revenues.

“You could do with a combination of revenue enhancements and cuts, or you could try to do it just through cuts,” Simpson said. “If you try to do it just through cuts, that makes it very tough, and I think you’d have a real hard time with some of the budgets coming to the floor.”

The budget roll-out will hinge on Ryan, the former Republican vice presidential nominee who is reassuming his role as the party’s point man on fiscal policy.

The Wisconsin budget wonk is highly respected by the most conservative House Republicans, but his proposals will also take on more of a political tint because he is seen as a leading contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

After a self-imposed retreat from the public eye following the November defeat, Ryan has become more visible in the last week and will appear on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday to discuss the Republican vision going forward.

Republicans have said the path to a balanced budget is easier in 2013 because the party can assume more tax revenue.

Ryan confirmed Wednesday that his budget would not seek to eliminate the $630 billion in tax increases that he voted for as part of the “fiscal cliff” deal in early January.

Approving a budget through the House will put party unity to the test.

House GOP leaders suffered 10 defections on their budget in 2012, and four the year before. They have a narrower margin in the 113th Congress, and could stand to lose just 15 Republican votes if all Democrats oppose their budget proposal, as they did in the previous two years.

Conservative Rep. Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) acknowledged that the new Ryan budget is unlikely to get the nearly unanimous votes of prior years.

“We don’t have to be unanimous, we just have to get 218, and I think we’ll get that and maybe a few more than that,” he said.

The conservative Republican Study Committee put forward a budget proposal last year that balanced in less than 10 years, but it got far fewer votes, garnering only 136 Republican supporters. The plan balanced more quickly by capping discretionary spending at $931 billion for five years.

Democrats made the Ryan budget a centerpiece of their House campaigns in 2012 and said they were eager to run against an even more austere version in 2014.

“In 2012, we won seats based on the misplaced priorities in the Ryan budget,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), now entering his second term as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “We anticipate that we will continue to win seats based on the misplaced priorities of the budgets that they offer over the next years.”

Already, some Republicans who voted for previous Ryan budgets are voicing concerns about the 10-year target.

“I think we have to look at it carefully and see what’s magic about 10 [years],” Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) said.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) said Ryan would be hard-pressed to write the budget in a way that does not hurt national security, a key test to get his vote.

“It’s very hard, very hard,” McKeon said.

Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) voted against the Republican budgets in 2011 and 2012 and said that he would vote against the Ryan plan if it contained a partially privatized Medicare system.

“I’m against vouchers,” he said. He said if Ryan had to cut entitlement benefits for those near retirement, it would make it even harder to vote for the new plan.

Now that House Republicans have passed legislation to suspend the debt ceiling until mid-May, a failure to secure the needed votes for a budget plan would be an almost unimaginable loss for the Speaker.

Yet if Boehner retreated from his pledge of a 10-year balanced budget, he would risk a revolt from conservatives already wary of his leadership. Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) told reporters Tuesday that the leadership would have “hell to pay” if they squandered the coming fiscal battles.

Still, many rank-and-file Republicans embraced the aggressive fiscal stance and said they were ready to defend the difficult choices it entailed.

Third-term Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) said she had “no concerns” about the 10-year proposal.

“The American people are ready to sacrifice to save our country, and it’s time for us to let the American people sacrifice to save this country for their children and grandchildren,” she said. “I haven’t seen any effort to do that in Congress until this 10-year proposal came up.”

While the previous Ryan budgets sought to exempt those 55 and older from changes to Medicare, the new 10-year target could require a higher threshold. Lummis, 58, said she would be able to defend that decision.

“Under that 10-year budget, I will be sacrificing. I want to make that sacrifice,” she said. “So I feel I have the credibility as someone who would be affected to go home and say, ‘We have a duty to save our country, and part of that duty, for those of us who are between 55 and 65, is to cowboy up and save this country.’ ”