By Alexander Bolton - 03/22/12 09:00 AM EDT
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) was in the car when he got the message that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wanted to talk.
It was Tuesday morning, as House Republicans were unveiling a budget plan that included facets of a Medicare reform proposal Wyden had embraced.
Wyden assured Reid that he did not support House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) blueprint, satisfying the Nevada Democrat.
A few hours later, Wyden and Reid would talk again.
The intense concern from Democratic leaders was spurred by Wyden’s decision to team up with Ryan on an ambitious plan to reform Medicare. The Ryan-Wyden white paper was unveiled in December, though it was a big topic on Capitol Hill this week because aspects of it were included in the Ryan budget.
Schumer and Democratic leaders in the House have long planned to campaign in 2012 against the Medicare reforms Ryan included in the budget plan he unveiled last year, which Democrats said would “end Medicare as we know it.”
Many Democrats were upset by Wyden’s decision to partner with Ryan, fearing it would give Republicans a chance to claim the original House GOP Medicare reforms are no longer on the table.
Wyden played no role in writing the House GOP budget. And he told The Hill that he is not inclined to support the Medicare reforms included in Ryan’s new budget blueprint.
Wyden does not support Ryan’s call to raise the Medicare eligibility age and said it would be “a real leap” for him to support the lower rate at which Ryan’s budget adjusts federal spending to help seniors keep up with rising healthcare costs.
But Wyden made clear he is not backing away from the plan he coauthored with Ryan, which proposed significant changes to Medicare.
“I haven’t backed off the white paper, that’s the main thing. I’m not in charge of the House Republican budget. I’m still for the white paper,” Wyden said during a sit-down interview Tuesday evening.
Wyden argues the Medicare safety net will disintegrate a decade from now if Congress fails to act.
“I believe on these big issues, absent something very startling, you’ve got to build a bipartisan coalition if you’re going to get something done,” he said.
The Wyden-Ryan plan would preserve Medicare’s traditional fee-for-service structure and give seniors the option of enrolling in private health plans that compete directly with Medicare.
Wyden knows that his name will be invoked a lot on the presidential campaign trail. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) has already said that his Medicare plan mirrors Wyden-Ryan.
“I support the president’s reelection,” Wyden stressed, reeling off a slew of criticisms of Romney’s approach to healthcare.
Still, Wyden’s Medicare talking points are dramatically different from those of many of his Democratic counterparts, who accuse the GOP of trying to choke and privatize Medicare.
The White House has made it clear that it opposes Ryan-Wyden.
White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer has said the “scheme could, over time, cause the traditional Medicare program to ‘wither on the vine’ because it would raise premiums, forcing many seniors to leave traditional Medicare and join private plans.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) likened it to “lipstick on a pig.”
Earlier this week, senior Democrats suggested that Wyden was withdrawing from his plan.
“I think even Wyden is backing off it,” said John Podesta, who served as President Clinton’s chief of staff and is now chairman of the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank.
Reid also suggested to reporters Tuesday afternoon that Wyden was stepping back from his partnership with Ryan.
Asked about Wyden’s partnership with Ryan on Medicare reform, Reid said: “I talked to Ron Wyden [Tuesday] morning, of course, and he said that’s not true. He doesn’t like the budget Ryan came up with. We all recognize all that does is make the rich richer and have bigger hits on the middle class and it ruins Medicare as we know it.”
When Wyden read a media report on Reid’s statement, he quickly called the leader to get a clarification.
Reid downplayed his comments.
“He said, ‘All I was saying was that you told me that you’d be against the Ryan budget,’ ” Wyden recounted of the conversation. “I said I appreciate it and he said, ‘I appreciate your position.’ ”
Wyden is aware of the political heartburn he caused by sponsoring a plan to reform Medicare with the Republican whom Democratic strategists wanted to make the No. 1 boogeyman of the 2012 election.
“None of this has been unexpected,” Wyden said. “There’s never an ideal time to take on a big issue. There’s always an election coming up around the corner. There’s always some point that’s the crisis of the moment.”
But Wyden felt it was important to put forward a credible bipartisan proposal during an election year. He says colleagues will have a chance to digest it while election-year politics stall work on the Senate floor and in committees.
He hopes lawmakers will gain familiarity with the plan and be ready to consider it when Congress returns to heavy legislative lifting next year.
“I felt there was a real window here if you could lay out [a] general kind of framework,” he said.
Pressed on whether his former Democratic colleagues in the House have given him grief for working with Ryan, Wyden smiles and says Democrats want to learn more about the plan.
“I understand the House, and nobody is oblivious to the fact that 2012 is going to be a heated election,” he added. But at the same time, Wyden said, Democrats know that preserving the “Medicare guarantee” is a core mission of their party and realize they will need to find a bipartisan path to extending the program’s solvency.
A senior Wyden aide said 12 Senate Democratic offices have expressed interest in the Wyden-Ryan plan.
Wyden, who was easily reelected to his fourth term in 2010, admits he is a policy wonk. Throughout the interview, he cites in-the-weeds terms like “dual eligibles” and “guaranteed affordability” and employs a steady stream of references to the nation’s GDP.
At 62, Wyden is young by Senate standards, and has retained some of his boyish features. The 6-foot-4 lawmaker leans back in his chair as he answers questions and exhibits an even temperament that has served him well in the heated world of politics.
Wyden, who founded the Gray Panthers, has joined forces on a variety of issues with conservatives in Congress, including Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.).
He is one of the few who practice bipartisanship in Congress, but points out he always gives “advance notice” to his fellow Democrats.
Wyden believes President Obama missed opportunities for addressing major policy problems on a bipartisan basis.
He thinks the president should have pressed Congress to spend six weeks considering the deficit-reduction plan drafted by the Simpson-Bowles commission. Instead, Obama rejected the findings.