Senate GOP punts on Medicare reform

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Facing a difficult election map in 2016, Senate Republicans are steering clear of entitlement reform changes that their House counterparts are demanding.

Republicans in both chambers unveiled budgets earlier this week, with an eye towards negotiating a single fiscal plan in April. But while both budgets would balance within a decade by making trillions of dollars in cuts, their approach to Medicare is markedly different.

In the House, Republicans are continuing down the path laid out by Rep. Paul RyanPaul RyanOvernight Healthcare: Obama confronts health law's 'growing pains' | Sanders slams leukemia drug price hike Trump may pose problem for Ryan in Speaker vote Trump is right, the system is rigged — and it has been for a long time MORE (R-Wis.), the former Budget chairman now heading the House’s tax-writing panel.

The budget unveiled Tuesday by Budget Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) would give future Medicare recipients assistance to help buy insurance, an approach that Democrats say puts the program on the path to privatization.

Senate Budget Chairman Mike EnziMike EnziGOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election Report: Feds spend billions on PR Restive GOP freshmen eye entitlement reform MORE’s (R-Wyo.) plan actually seeks a higher amount of Medicare savings over a decade — roughly $430 billion, the same as President Obama, to the $148 billion in the House budget. But in a big contrast, the plan Enzi released Wednesday does not offer a specific path for reforming Medicare.

Both budgets take a hands-off approach to Social Security and seek to turn Medicaid into a block grant for states, though the House seeks more cuts.

With the odds of a broad agreement on the budget and entitlements all but an impossibility between this GOP Congress and President Obama, Senate Republicans argue there is no purpose in proposing solutions that have no chance of happening.

“Really, what’s the point until we have a president who is serious about fixing these problems?” said Sen. Ron JohnsonRon JohnsonMcCain: Accepting election results is 'American way' Wisconsin poll: Clinton has 7-point lead on Trump Cruz: Voter fraud a challenge MORE (R-Wis.), a Budget Committee member.

The splits among House Republicans, who saw a divide between fiscal and deficit hawks threaten their budget this week, are well known. But the gap on entitlements underscores the different political climate the two chambers face, and the challenges they’ll have in settling on a single budget.

House Republicans appear poised to retain control of their chamber for the foreseeable future, having expanded their majority in the last election cycle. Many of their incumbents hold such red seats that their biggest threat is a primary challenge, not a Democratic opponent.

But Senate Republicans, who only just gained control in 2014, face several tough races in 2016 where sitting senators are up in moderate or Democratic-leaning states. With their majority on the line, many see no reason to potentially alienate seniors, who vote at a higher clip than other age groups.

The issue is particularly acute at the Budget Committee, where one-third of the Republicans on the panel face difficult races in 2016. In addition to Johnson, Sens. Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteNH poll: Dem challenger pulls ahead of Ayotte The Trail 2016: Election night cliffhanger Clinton super PAC rakes in M as it looks to expand map MORE (N.H.), Rob PortmanRob PortmanGOP senator: I'd consider Clinton Supreme Court pick The Trail 2016: Election night cliffhanger Poll: Clinton, Trump tied in battleground Ohio MORE (Ohio), and Pat Toomey (Pa.) all are up for reelection in states that voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012.

Budget committees in both chambers have signed off on their respective budget plans, with floor votes coming next week.

Other GOP incumbents, like Sen. Mark KirkMark KirkGreat Lakes senators seek boost for maritime system GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election Iran sending ships to Yemeni coast after US ship fires at Houthi sites MORE (Ill.) or even Sens. Richard BurrRichard BurrPoll: Trump, Clinton in close race in North Carolina The Trail 2016: The grand finale Greens put M into NC Senate race MORE (N.C.) and Roy BluntRoy BluntGOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election Dems, GOP bet on different strategies in race for Senate Dem group pours nearly M into Senate, House battlegrounds MORE (Mo.), could face difficult re-election campaigns next year.

"I don't have a lot of comments on the Republican budget because I haven't read it," Kirk told The Hill.

For now, Senate Republicans seem more willing to talk about the problem of entitlement spending than they are to push changes that could be politically toxic.

Portman, who has seen Democrats try to clear next year’s Senate field for former Gov. Ted Strickland (D), said the Senate was taking a more traditional view of what a budget should do.

“It’s typical of budgets that we ask the committees of jurisdiction to actually figure out the details,” said Portman, a former vice chairman of the House Budget Committee and budget director under President George W. Bush.

“I’m on the committee of jurisdiction, so I’m going to be in it one way or the other,” said Portman, a Senate Finance member.

Johnson was blunter about the reasons to avoid the details.

“Let’s face it, these solutions aren’t going to be fun,” said Johnson, who could face the former senator he unseated, Russ Feingold, in 2016. “You need people who are serious about it, and a serious president.”

But that philosophy is facing opposition in the House, where Republicans are eager to lay down some sort of marker on entitlements.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), who sits on the House Budget Committee, acknowledged that his Senate colleagues face “a very difficult political environment.” But House Republicans also believe that any political headaches caused by their Medicare plan, which analysts say helped them lose a special New York election in 2011, is well behind them.

“I think they’re overly skittish about next year,” Cole said, noting that House Republicans have only added to their numbers after pushing entitlement changes.

“They’re unrealistically apprehensive about their political fate,” added Cole, the former chief of the House GOP’s campaign arm.

And on this issue at least, leadership allies and more hard-line conservatives are on the same page.

“People are afraid to deal with it,” said Rep. Matt SalmonMatt Salmon GOP lawmakers give Trump bad reviews on debate performance House GOP talks 'minibuses,' moves toward Senate in spending fight Gloom sets in for GOP MORE (R-Ariz.). “But to not deal with it is just irresponsible, both from the budget standpoint and also for future beneficiaries. There will be a time when the chickens come home to roost.”