GOP budget walk-back

With just days left before the nation reaches its debt limit, officially flirting with default, no one is shocked that the two parties remain miles apart on a path to deficit and debt reduction. But for Republicans pushing to close the gap, a new rift over whether to tackle Medicare is an unwelcome surprise.

Only weeks after House Republicans passed an ambitious budget based on a contentious Medicare overhaul, several members of the GOP leadership stunned the rank-and-file with statements dismissing the proposal’s political viability. Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, told The Hill he wasn’t interested in pursuing the premium support plan for Medicare in his committee if it isn’t going to pass the Senate. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who drafted the plan, concurred, predicting Medicare reform would be derailed by the politics of the 2012 campaign. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) acknowledged the same, and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Camp’s remarks were “a recognition of the political realities we face.”

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The statements surprised members who, having voted on the proposal just three weeks prior, had returned from a two-week recess in their districts where worried constituents questioned the plan at testy town-hall meetings. The leadership performed a collective walk-back last Friday, releasing a statement declaring its commitment to the Ryan plan for Medicare reform. “This has been and remains the Republican position. We are committed to our budget and to making the reforms necessary to grow our economy and create jobs, preserve and strengthen Medicare and put our nation on a path to pay down the debt,” read the joint statement. 

Most Republicans, and everyone in Washington for that matter, knew the Ryan plan would not pass the Senate from the very day it was released. That anyone would admit it publicly was a misstep that illustrates the toxicity of Medicare and the nervousness some campaign strategists have about pursuing the matter any further. Democratic fundraising went into overdrive in the weeks following the vote as the party attacked those members from swing districts with new targets on their backs and liberal interest groups worked to extract pledges from Democrats to take Medicare off the table in deficit-reduction negotiations. 

Republicans admit the messaging blunder was an error but hope the voters will hear their continued commitment to reform and give them credit for trying to tackle the debt. One GOP member in leadership said Boehner, to his credit, is focused less on politics and more on getting something done in a divided government. “Boehner is a process guy. He isn’t a visionary and isn’t seeking the rhetorical high ground,” he said. 

But Boehner is still taking arrows from the Tea Party over the fiscal 2011 budget deal that cut $38 billion rather than the $100 billion promised during the campaign or the $61 billion voted on in the House. The Congressional Budget Office determined the bill would only actually cut $352 million from this year’s deficit, prompting more than 50 Republicans to vote against it. To reassure the right, Boehner announced in a speech Monday that “without significant spending cuts and changes in the way we spend the American people’s money, there will be no increase in the debt limit.” Significant cuts, Boehner said, would means trillions rather than billions.

To get to trillions, a deal would clearly have to include reforms to Medicare, one of the largest drivers of federal debt. Whether or not Medicare remains on the table, the Speaker has laid down another marker that he might later be forced to admit did not square with the political realities Republicans face.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.