By Russell Berman and Erik Wasson - 03/19/12 09:00 AM EDT
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), buffeted by a series of defeats and setbacks since December, is betting big on the budget.
House Republicans will announce their 2013 spending blueprint this week, hoping to unite their fractious members around an election-year policy agenda.
Simply put, Boehner needs this one.
After a year in which the new GOP House majority made budget-cutting a hallmark, with mixed success, the party has given up ground as the debate has shifted to job creation. With this week’s budget release, House Republicans want to reclaim the deficit mantle.
The passage of last year’s budget resolution marked a high point for House GOP unity. All but four Republicans voted for Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) vision of spending cuts that included an overhaul of Medicare and Medicaid.
But amid divisions over spending levels and the looming election, party leaders have had a tougher time this year.
Democrats are chomping at the bit, saying Boehner is making a budget pact with the Tea Party that will seal a GOP defeat in November. Democrats will highlight Medicare reforms Republicans want to implement, though the entitlement provisions probably won’t be as sweeping as in last year’s budget blueprint.
Conservatives have pushed the party to endorse lower levels of federal spending than last summer’s bipartisan budget deal, while Appropriations Committee members lobbied leadership to stick to the level Obama endorsed. And some politically vulnerable Republicans are leery of backing major changes to Medicare in an election year.
After playing defense for much of the past few months, GOP officials are vowing to play offense this budget season. They have repeatedly noted that Senate Democrats haven’t passed a budget in more than 1,000 days, seeking to portray them as fiscally irresponsible.
But those attacks will fall flat unless Boehner, Ryan and other senior-ranking Republicans can get their budget through the lower chamber.
In a closed-door party meeting earlier this month, Boehner made a pitch for unity as he pushed for his highway bill. That message also extends to the budget.
He warned against “allowing our internal disagreements to paralyze us.”
“The good news is we have a winning message,” Boehner said. “The bad news is that in order for that message to mean anything, we have to back it up with action.”
Ryan has been working feverishly to produce a budget in time to release in the coming days. The plan is to have it on the House floor next week, before Congress takes a two-week Easter recess.
Ryan is scheduled to announce his “Blueprint for American Renewal” budget Tuesday in a speech to the American Enterprise Institute. A committee markup will follow the next day.
The House budget resolution will be viewed through a campaign prism. Republicans will contrast it with Obama’s spending plan, and congressional Democrats will use it as political ammunition this fall.
Ryan expects his budget to play a key role in post-election negotiations on the debt ceiling, the $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts triggered by last August’s debt deal and the expiring Bush-era tax rates.
Before the election, House appropriators will have to craft 12 annual spending bills based on the top-line number in the budget resolution. The August debt deal set that number initially at $1.047 trillion, and appropriators wanted to stick to that figure.
Right-wing lawmakers rebelled, however, and, according to sources, House leadership agreed to bring that number down to at least $1.028 trillion, which is what Ryan had put in his budget last year for fiscal 2013.
Boehner, Ryan and his lieutenants made that decision largely because they need the votes.
Most, if not all, Democrats will reject Ryan’s budget. There are 22 Republicans and 16 Democrats on the Budget Committee. Nine GOP lawmakers on the budget panel voted against the August debt agreement.
Boehner, meanwhile, can only afford a couple-dozen defections on the floor. The big question now is whether appropriators will fall in line.
Most of the budget Ryan is putting together is to be modeled on his 2012 budget, which sparked a political firestorm over its proposal to convert Medicare into a premium-support system. Under that plan, those 54 or younger would have to choose between government-approved private insurance plans, rather than receive traditional fee-for-service Medicare.
Democrats proclaimed Ryan’s proposal “the end of Medicare” and used it effectively to win back a House seat in a special election soon after the vote.
According to interviews with conservative Budget Committee members, Ryan looks to be on the verge of offering a bold but somewhat scaled-back version of his Medicare reform this time. This new version closely resembles a plan put forward by GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney.
The new plan, based on a model developed with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), would keep traditional Medicare as an option, according to its supporters.
Democrats who support the modified Medicare plan, other than Wyden, have remained silent. The rest are already prepared to attack this as once again an end to traditional Medicare.
“Republicans are doubling down on the same failed idea — that traditional Medicare should end and seniors should no longer be guaranteed health insurance coverage,” said Jesse Ferguson, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
In a preview video released Friday, Ryan cast the budget as nothing less than an attempt to “save our country.”
“This coming debt crisis is the most predictable crisis we’ve ever had in this country,” he said in the video. “This is why we’re acting. This is why we’re leading. This is why we’re proposing and passing out of the House a budget to fix this problem. It’s going to save our country, for ourselves and for our children’s future.”