Senator McConnell leaves House Republican budget twisting in the wind

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) is leaving Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget plan to its own fate in the Senate by not whipping his GOP colleagues on the vote.

Republican senators say McConnell has made it clear he will vote for the House Budget Committee chairman’s plan, but has said rank-and-file members should vote as they want on the 2012 budget proposal. 

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Sens. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the second- and third-ranking members of the Senate Republican leadership, say they will also vote for Ryan’s plan.

But as for the rest of the GOP conference, “every senator will have to decide that for himself,” Alexander said. 

House GOP Leaders whipped the vote on the Ryan budget, and it was approved with only four GOP defections. Every House Democrat voted against it. 

The decision to let GOP senators vote their conscience means there might be more “no” votes on the budget plan from Republicans in the Senate.

McConnell’s office points out that the GOP leader has defended Ryan for trying to reduce the federal deficit in the absence of any detailed Democratic proposals. McConnell said Ryan has offered a “budget to address our most pressing problems head-on at a moment when the president and other Democrat leaders simply refuse to do so themselves.”

However, many Republicans are undecided, and a group of centrists is leaning against voting for the plan because it would cut Medicare benefits substantially. Ryan’s proposal calls for $5.8 trillion in spending cuts over 10 years and would transform Medicare and Medicaid.

One GOP senator who spoke on the condition of anonymity expressed his belief that Ryan made a serious tactical mistake by spelling out Medicare reforms in his budget plan.

“All Ryan had to do was set an overall number and leave it up to the policymaking committees how to come up with the savings,” said the lawmaker. “The important number to focus on is that the federal government takes in $2.2 trillion and spends $3.7 trillion.”

The lawmaker, who did not want to be quoted on the record criticizing a fellow Republican, said that by laying out specific Medicare reforms, Ryan gave Democrats political ammunition.

“The only people talking about Medicare are Republicans, and we’re just arguing with ourselves,” said the lawmaker.

Indeed, it is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who has insisted on bringing Ryan’s plan to the floor next week for a vote, not McConnell.

Alexander acknowledged Wednesday that there are differences among his colleagues over Ryan’s budget and how to proceed on Medicare reform.

“We have many different opinions in our conference,” he said.

Alexander said that in addition to the Ryan plan, there’s a budget proposal sponsored by Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and a less austere Medicare reform plan backed by former White House budget director Alice Rivlin and former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.).

Alexander said he preferred the Rivlin-Domenici plan, even though he will vote for the Ryan budget.

He’s not the only Republican taking a public stance on the issue.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) announced on a local television news program last month that she does not support Ryan’s plan, becoming the first Republican senator to do so.

Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) recently told the Newburyport Chamber of Commerce that he would vote for Ryan’s budget, setting off a scramble in his office to walk back the comments. 

Brown staffers said their boss meant to say he would vote “on” the bill but not necessarily “for” it, according to the Daily News of Newburyport.

 Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) is leaning against voting for the Ryan plan because it would transform Medicare’s traditional fee-for-service benefits plan into a voucher-like program.

 Snowe has openly criticized Ryan’s proposed Medicare reforms, and her staff notes that Maine has the highest percentage of Medicare beneficiaries of any state in the country.

Kyl said without hesitation on Wednesday that he would vote for Ryan’s budget.

 “Absolutely,” he said. “Would I defend Paul Ryan? Absolutely.”

 Toomey, who has offered a competing budget proposal, also said he would endorse Ryan’s plan.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) said it would be a “problem” if she were forced to vote up or down on the Ryan budget without being given a chance to amend it.

 A Democratic leadership aide said Republicans would not have a chance to offer amendments to the Ryan budget.

But other senior GOP lawmakers aren’t saying how they’ll vote.

“I haven’t decided; we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” said Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.).

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) declined to say how he would vote. He said the burden is on Senate Democrats to explain why they haven’t introduced their own alternative budget.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the man in charge of the Senate Democrats’ political messaging operation, has made the Ryan plan the centerpiece of his critique of GOP policymaking.

But, as for a Democratic plan, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) has yet to schedule a markup of his budget proposal because of disputes among Democrats on his panel over the appropriate balance of spending cuts and tax increases needed to reduce the deficit.

As part of an expected agreement with GOP leaders, Reid will also schedule a vote on the budget plan President Obama introduced at the beginning of this year. Most Democrats are expected to vote against it because Obama has since revised his fiscal policy vision during a speech at George Washington University, said the leadership aide.