Budget ax-man Rep. Paul Ryan is Senate Democrats' new villain

Senate Democrats are pouncing on Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) role in delivering the Republican response to the State of the Union address to make the case that Republicans are intent on destroying Social Security and Medicare. 

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the master political strategist for Senate Democrats, wants to turn Ryan into a bogeyman that voters think about whenever they hear about a Republican proposal to cut federal spending. 

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Schumer's strategy reflects an effort to revitalize a party messaging operation that many Democrats say fell apart after Obama won the White House. Senate Democrats face a daunting political map in 2012 and are looking to launch early, coordinated attacks on Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) new majority. 

Schumer’s strategy is to highlight the link between GOP efforts to cut as much as $50 billion from the federal budget and a “roadmap” to create private accounts for Social Security and Medicare that Ryan created.

“This is an initial volley in a three-day effort — 72-hour window — to try to muddle Paul Ryan’s foray onto the national scene,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide. “We want to make the House Republicans or Republicans at large own his roadmap and what it would entail for Social Security.”

Democrats hope they can make Ryan’s debut on the national political stage as disastrous as the rebuttal Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) delivered in 2009. Jindal’s stilted performance, which the media skewered, immediately quieted talk of him as a presidential contender in 2012. 

 Democrats are seizing on a vote scheduled Tuesday that will give Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, unilateral power to set the House-approved federal spending totals for fiscal 2011.

One Democratic aide characterized Ryan’s power to finalize the House budget numbers later this year as giving him “unprecedented power to carry out” cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

It’s an early skirmish in the battle between Senate Democrats and House Republicans over federal spending that will define the divided 112th Congress. 

 Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Bernie Sanders (Vt.), an Independent who caucuses with Democrats, organized a conference call on Monday afternoon to press Boehner to explain his support for Ryan’s roadmap for curbing the costs of Social Security and Medicare.

 Ryan introduced a fiscal roadmap last year that would allow workers under the age of 55 the option of investing over a third of their Social Security taxes into personal retirement accounts similar to the Thrift Savings Plan available to federal employees. He has also proposed raising the retirement age by one month every two years until it reaches the age of 70.

 Senate Democrats became further emboldened to attack Ryan for his Social Security proposal after senior White House aides assured them in recent days that Obama would not call for benefit cuts during Tuesday’s address, as some liberals feared he would.

Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future” also called for creating a voucher program to replace traditional Medicare and transforming Medicaid into a block-grant program. Under Ryan’s plan to transform Medicare, beneficiaries would receive on average an $11,000 grant to purchase certified plans on the open market.

Ryan argues this would allow market forces to control the spiraling cost of healthcare and reduce the frequency of government overpayment for services.

 Democratic pollsters say Ryan’s approach is politically risky because voters across the ideological spectrum, especially seniors, are highly skeptical of efforts to reform either of those entitlement programs.

 “It’s clear from the Republican Party’s selection of Paul Ryan to be spokesman and the decision to vote on giving him unfettered control on what to cut that [Republicans] are getting behind his plan, and that makes clear they’re coming after Social Security and Medicare,” Whitehouse told reporters. 

On Monday, Senate Democrats also highlighted a video of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) endorsing Ryan’s roadmap over the weekend during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

When asked if Republicans were shying away from the plan, Cantor said, “That’s not true.

 “The direction in which the roadmap goes is something we need — we need to embrace,” he said.

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Republican leaders have been reluctant to endorse raising the Social Security retirement age or creating private retirement and health accounts. Only 14 House Republicans endorsed the plan Ryan offered last year.

 And Ryan has tried to differentiate the roadmap from the budget he will introduce for fiscal 2011.

 Ryan told reporters at a recent breakfast meeting that the budget resolution he will unveil would be a consensus document reflecting the views of the broad House Republican Conference, and not necessarily the roadmap.

 But Senate Democrats say the decision by GOP leaders to appoint Ryan to respond to Obama’s address shows they support cost-cutting overhauls for Social Security and Medicare.

“In an unsettling development for America’s seniors, ending Social Security and Medicare is now the official position of the Republican Party,” said Jon Summers, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

 “Why else would they select [Ryan] as their spokesperson?” said Whitehouse.

 “Up until this point the Republican leadership has been vague about what programs they want to cut. On the other hand, Congressman Ryan has been clear on this subject,” said Sanders. 

 Ryan could face some personal political peril if the Democrats’ messaging attack gains widespread attention.

 Obama carried Ryan’s congressional district with 51 percent of the vote in 2008, and voters could turn against Ryan if he is widely seen as a proponent of cutting Social Security.

 Republican aides, however, counter that Obama has acknowledged that reforms need to be enacted to extend Social Security’s solvency.

 “President Obama and Republicans agree on the need to reform Social Security to protect benefits for future generations,” said Michael Steel, Boehner’s spokesman. “It seems like some of the president’s Democratic allies on Capitol Hill haven’t gotten the memo from the White House.”

 Many Senate Democrats strongly oppose cuts in Social Security benefits and have pressed Obama to back away from such a proposal. They cite a Congressional Budget Office projection showing the Social Security trust fund will be able to pay out full benefits until 2039.

Schumer’s decision to target Ryan is his latest effort to put pressure on House Republican leaders.

He and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) wrote a letter to Cantor on Sunday warning him that repealing healthcare reform could force seniors to give up the $250 rebate checks they had received under the law to fill a gap in Medicare prescription drug coverage.

Last week Democratic leaders also sent a letter to the CEOs of the nation’s largest tax-preparation companies urging them to remind small businesses of tax credits for those who provide health insurance to employees. 

 Schumer has pressed House Republicans who favor the repeal of healthcare reform to forgo federal health benefits, claiming it is inconsistent for lawmakers to vote for repeal while keeping government-sponsored coverage for themselves.