Rep. Paul Ryan’s new Medicare cutoff: 56

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is pressing GOP centrists to accept a budget that would cut Medicare benefits for recipients who are now 56 years old.

The House Budget Committee chairman and 2012 GOP vice presidential candidate argues the change is necessary to help him produce a budget next week that balances within 10 years. 

He also says that the change must be made and that it is better to adopt it now than next year, when Republicans will face voters in the midterm elections. 

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The problem for Ryan is that many Republicans have said his budget would not touch Medicare benefits for anyone who is already 55 years old. Members may have trouble supporting a measure that goes back on that commitment. 

“The big problem was that a lot of people have been telling people that it’s 55 and that’s the number,” said one lawmaker who attended a meeting Tuesday between Ryan and centrist Republicans. “And if you change it, it’s going to make us look like [liars].” 

Winning over those centrists is crucial to Ryan, who is expected to see a handful of conservatives vote against his budget. Republicans can afford to lose only 15 Republicans in what is expected to be a party-line vote. 

In meeting with the “Tuesday Group,” a caucus of GOP centrists, Ryan presented the group with two options, but he seemed to suggest the best way forward was to adopt the change in this year’s budget. 

“Look, the age is going to have to go up eventually,” Ryan told lawmakers at the meeting, according to an attendee. 

He explained that the baseline, which reflects January’s “fiscal cliff” deal, which raised $600 billion in new tax revenue, meant benefits for those older than 56 would not have to be touched. 

But he said that it was impossible not to change benefits for people now 56 and that Republicans could either adopt it as part of their budget now or next year. 

“I think we should increase the age this year because I’m either going to have to increase the age this year or next year,” Ryan told the group, according to the attendee. 

“Do you want me to increase the age now and keep it at 56 next year, or do you want me to keep it at 55 this year and next year at 56?” Ryan asked at the meeting, adding it would give lawmakers a year to explain the change to their constituents before the next election, the attendee said. 

It is unclear whether Ryan’s preference won over the members. 

Centrists balked when Ryan and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) broke the news to them last month that they might have to raise the age at which people would be affected by the Medicare reforms to 59 years old in order to balance the budget in 10 years. 

Democrats fiercely attacked Ryan’s last budget, which only cut benefits for people who are now under 55 years old. But that budget also didn’t balance until 2040. 

The improved baseline will help Ryan, but Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) a former Budget Committee member, said he knows some members still will have a problem. 

“I can sell 56 just as easy as I can sell 55,” Simpson said, adding that other members would have a problem arguing they were not going back on a promise.

“With some members it is of concern in that they’ve been out selling 55 and older … and this is going back on their promise,” Simpson said. 

Rep. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.) who was particularly outspoken when the possibility of raising the age was broached last month, seemed more reassured after the Tuesday meeting with Ryan.

Meehan said he believed Ryan wanted to keep 55 the age at which people would see their Medicare benefits affected, which would allow the party a year to communicate the matter to voters.

“I think that there was a recognition that we were fighting for the principle of 55 and how you interpret that, some people were saying, ‘we spoke to people and told them 55,’ and if you have time to suggest to them that it’s 55 but understand that you can’t forever hold that number, it would be a better option,” Meehan said in an interview.

He noted that anything above 55 would risk losing votes.

Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.), a Tuesday Group member who attended the lunch, said Ryan hasn’t made a final decision.

“He actually said, ‘We don’t know what the numbers are going to look like next year,’ but he said that they are going to do their best to try and protect current beneficiaries and those that are younger than or born in 1958,” Upton said.

The head of the conservative Republican Study Committee (RSC), which is producing its own budget plan, predicted that most of his colleagues would support Ryan’s budget.

“We’re moving forward under the premise that there will be an RSC budget as well but we want to wait to see what his budget looks like first,” RSC Chairman Steve Scalise (La.) said. 

He noted that most RSC members voted in favor of last year’s budget, which didn’t balance until 2040. 

Still, Scalise left open the possibility that some would oppose Ryan, noting that “our objectives are not just 10-year balanced but the underlying policies that get you to balance both on saving Medicare and pro-growth tax reform.”