Dems seek leverage by forcing GOP split on Ryan's budget plan

Senate Democratic aides expect Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to force Senate Republicans to vote on the Paul Ryan budget plan. 

Reid hasn’t made a formal decision yet, and won’t until he returns from an overseas trip.

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The idea is to drive a wedge through the GOP caucus and put vulnerable incumbents such as Sens. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) in a political jam.

Senate Democrats felt encouraged Friday after Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) emerged as the first Senate Republican to publicly oppose the House-passed budget blueprint, named after Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

"I don't happen to support Congressman Ryan's plan, but at least he had the courage to put forth a plan to significantly reduce the debt," Collins said on WCSH 6, an NBC affiliate in Portland, Maine.

If Reid can show that a bloc of Senate Republicans will not support the dramatic spending cuts and sizable tax cuts passed by the lower chamber, it would help his negotiating leverage with Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

After Reid struck a deal with Boehner earlier this month to keep the government funded for the rest of fiscal 2011, a senior Democratic leadership aide said Reid felt his negotiating position was strengthened after the Senate rejected the House-passed spending cuts.

During the talks, Boehner had repeatedly argued that the House had passed a 2011 spending bill and the Senate had not passed an alternative and therefore Reid should move closer to the GOP position.

After Reid showed that the $61 billion in cuts favored by House Republicans could not pass the Senate, Boehner made the argument less forcefully, according to a Democratic source who participated in the talks.

The Senate killed the 2011 spending bill by a largely party-line vote of 44-56 on March 9.

Reid has not announced whether he will bring the Ryan plan to the floor, one aide cautioned. Senate Democrats won’t know for sure until Reid has finalized his game plan. All Senate scheduling decisions rest with him alone.

Democratic leaders are waiting on a bipartisan negotiating group known as the Gang of Six to propose a long-term deficit-reduction plan. That will give Democratic lawmakers a chance to vote on an alternative to the Ryan plan.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) is expected to introduce a Senate Democratic budget blueprint that may include the recommendations of the Gang of Six, depending on whether the group reaches a deal.

Reid spent the past week with other Democratic leaders traveling in China to encourage American business investment and meet with Chinese leaders.

When Reid, Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) return to Washington, they will focus on tying Senate Republicans to the significant cuts in Medicare benefits called for by the Ryan budget.

“The Senate Republicans have no interest whatsoever in owning the details of that proposal,” said a Senate Democratic aide. “I’d be surprised if they want to put their members on the record, especially those on the record as supporting that budget.”

The aide noted polls have shown that proposals to cut Medicare benefits are extremely unpopular, even among Republican voters.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has not called for a vote on the Ryan budget, and a senior GOP aide was not aware of any Republican senators pressing to bring it to the floor.

Instead, Republicans are waiting for a budget plan from Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who has declined to publicize details of how his blueprint would address Medicare.

Another alternative is legislation sponsored by Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) that would cap spending at 20.6 percent of gross domestic product after 10 years. Federal spending is now nearly 25 percent of GDP.

Ryan has proposed capping the growth of Medicare by transforming it into a premium support system, a type of voucher program. The government would not give vouchers to Medicare beneficiaries; instead, it would make payments to insurance companies to subsidize the cost for seniors.

Ryan argues that if insurance companies had to compete for Medicare beneficiaries on open exchanges, market forces would drive down the cost of healthcare.

But Democratic strategists are betting that most voters will become outraged by proposals to cap benefits far below the currently projected growth rate of healthcare costs.

“The budget debate, if it’s about priorities, is one where the Democrats will have the high ground,” said the Democratic aide. “The Republican plan is a plan to end Medicare. If we can succeed in showing that’s the true aim of their budget document, we’ll have the high ground.

“When we return, we’ll seek to drive that contrast further."

Schumer signaled that strategy at a press conference before the April recess.

“Medicare has cost issues, no doubt; but we should mend it, not end it, as the Ryan budget proposes,” Schumer said.

“No plan to end Medicare as we know it will ever, ever pass the Senate,” he said.

“We hope the coming debate will yield a compromise, but if it can’t, we’ll be happy to take this contrast of priorities to 2012,” he added.