GOP centrists balk at Ryan Medicare shift

House Republican centrists are furious that GOP leaders are considering abandoning their pledge not to change Medicare retirement benefits for people 55 years and older.

According to several sources, a handful of centrist GOP lawmakers attending a recent Tuesday Group luncheon erupted when Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) broke the news. 

After agreeing to write a budget resolution that will balance the budget over the next decade, Ryan conceded that he might have to adjust the age to as high as 59. 

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“Paul Ryan was pretty clear that that could happen. You could have to take it up to a higher number like 56, 57, 59 ... it could be higher than 55, but he also said, ‘We don’t have any numbers yet,’ ” said a Republican lawmaker who attended the meeting.

The dwindling group of middle-of-the-road House Republican lawmakers decried the potential change in age because the party for the past two years has repeatedly cited 55 years and above as the untouched generation. Some of the members are also facing challenging reelection races next year.

“A lot of people had made commitments at 55. In other words, in the campaign [Republican vulnerable members] said it wouldn’t affect your Medicare for retirees or near retirees for those 55 and up ... and [if] this budget forces them to renege on that, that would be problematic for many,” said the GOP lawmaker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.  

Both Mitt Romney and Ryan cited the 55 figure during their run for the White House last year.

House Democrats are salivating at the opportunity to run against the Ryan budget in the 2014 elections. In 2012, Democrats picked up eight House seats after highlighting the Ryan blueprint on the campaign trail.

But this year’s version will be more to the liking of conservatives. The 2012 measure would have balanced the budget by 2040 — this year’s would do it by 2023, meaning there would be greater spending cuts.

Historically, the budget vote falls along party lines. No Democrat voted for Ryan’s budget in 2011 or 2012. Ten Republicans voted no in 2012, including Reps. Justin Amash (Mich.), Chris Gibson (N.Y.), Walter Jones (N.C.) and Tim Huelskamp (Kan.).

One veteran Republican lawmaker on the Budget Committee acknowledged that some adjustment in the age might be needed to get to balance in 10 years, but said it might not be as troublesome as some anticipate. 

Even if Ryan does raise the age, it would likely be closer to 56 or 57, providing lawmakers with a technical “out” when they return home to their districts, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said, pointing out that the initial Ryan budget passed two years ago.

“If we said we’d gotten what we’d wanted last year and the year before, [it] would have started at 55. You’ve got to kind of inch it up a bit, but it doesn’t make that much difference financially. There’s still some Budget Committee deliberation and decisions to be made,” Cole said.

But centrists’ concerns extend to how the policy was shaped in the first place. Many did not want to require a balanced budget within 10 years, noting that’s been a conservative cause championed by lawmakers in the Republican Study Committee (RSC). 

The self-proclaimed “pragmatic” Republican lawmakers suspect that the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee and House GOP leaders caved to conservatives in the conference at the late January conference retreat in Williamsburg, Va., exchanging a 10-year balanced budget for support of the bill to suspend the debt limit until May. 

While Ryan and McCarthy denied cutting such a deal at the retreat, centrists remain suspicious. They also hold some power because Republicans can only afford 15 defections on the yet-to-be-released Ryan resolution, should all Democrats vote no.

 Former Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio) said he’s perplexed as to why leaders would cut a deal with conservatives, noting that some of them will likely defect anyway. 

LaTourette, the new head of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, predicted that leaders might not be able to rely on the traditionally reliable centrist voting bloc.

“The anger [among centrists] is that, ‘Look, we’ve been home and we’ve told the people you don’t have to worry — 55 and older ... so now because these nuts are demanding a 10-year [balanced] budget, which they are going to vote against, you’re expecting us [to pass it] again?’ And so I don’t think that’s going to happen,” LaTourette said.

William Allison, the Budget Committee’s GOP spokesman, would not comment on the meeting that took place two weeks ago, but reiterated Ryan’s promise to “advance a responsible, balanced budget.”

In regard to Medicare, Allison said, “His reforms ensure no changes for those in or near retirement, a sharp contrast to the real harm inflicted on seniors by the president’s healthcare law.”

A leadership source told The Hill that the leaders “are not panicked” about getting the votes, noting that “this is always a difficult process. The only time it was easy was when we were in the minority and we knew we were voting ‘no.’ ” 

The source conceded that “this is a more fractious Republican Conference, but it’s a brave conference that’s been willing to make tough decisions and know it was going to take a political pummeling,” adding, “Paul Ryan is a superb policy person, but he’s also a practical politician and a great team player.” 

Another GOP leadership aide would not comment on behind-the-scenes conversations, but noted that Ryan had yet to present the final specifics of his budget.


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