Published March 19, 2012
Ryan’s Risky Budget Bid
“What would it say about us if we didn’t even try to govern? The Senate hasn’t functioned properly for three years – not even an attempt to pass a budget. Maybe that’s the politically savvy thing to do, but I can’t see how that’s in the best interests of the American people.”
-- A long-serving House Republican talking to Power Play about the risks associated with unveiling a new budget proposal this week.
There are plenty of House Republicans who no doubt wish that Paul Ryan would keep his big budget ideas to himself – especially now.
While the president will be out on a swing-state campaign trip aimed at combating voter anger over high gas prices and staying busy with fundraisers, his team is gearing up for an aggressive defense of the most significant accomplishment of his term both in court and in the public discourse.
Team Obama isn’t eager to reconnect the president to the law, which Obama generally only mentions obliquely unless he’s in front of a partisan crowd. But they have to defend it in order to keep liberal supporters on board and soften the dissatisfaction in the center.
Part of the effort will be to play up Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney’s own 2007 Massachusetts plan, which included a mandatory insurance provision. Not only do they hope this will help deflect criticism of the unpopular national law, but that it will help slow Romney’s march to the nomination by empowering his chief rival, Rick Santorum.
In Congress, meanwhile, the haggling will continue over the last bit of “must pass” legislation for the year – extending the transportation-funding package that will expire in less than two weeks. If it fails, road funding would dry up and the federal gas tax would expire. The Senate has passed a two-year extension, but the House is tangled up over the measure.
Foreign policy looks tricky too. The divisions over the Afghan war are deepening as an increasing number of Republicans openly voice doubts about maintaining the president’s war effort there amid a series of setbacks for the nation-building strategy and time-limited troop surge. The international angle gets more complicated amid calls from interventionists to join the Syrian civil war and increasingly bellicose talk about the Iranian nuclear program.
With the president playing defense on energy and health care and numerous unavoidable internal squabbles to settle, plenty of Republicans would be quite happy to skip the debate over Paul Ryan’s budget blueprint.
The president is legally obliged to put forward a budget, so his administration put forward a rehash of their previous plans and pretty quickly moved on. Senate Democrats haven’t passed a budget in three years and their leader, Harry Reid, has in the past called it “foolish” to force votes on spending legislation that will never pass but could harm incumbents. Plus, spending rates for the rest of the year were already hashed out in the August deal to increase the federal borrowing limit.
Even so, House Budget Committee Chairman Ryan will still roll out this week a budget plan that will give Democrats fodder to attack Republicans for endangering the safety net for seniors and simultaneously harden the resentments of conservative members of Ryan’s own caucus who believe that their leaders are not doing enough.
Recall that Ryan’s first proposed budget prompted massive upheaval last year. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich almost scuttled his presidential bid in its first week by calling the plan “right-wing social engineering.” But inside Congress, Tea Party boosters were fuming about the fact that Ryan’s plan allowed for another decade of deficit spending before bringing the budget in line.
All of the Republican contenders for president eventually signed on for Ryan’s plan to eventually turn Medicare into a voucher program, in which beneficiaries select and manage their own private coverage. And House conservatives were in time placated with additional cuts to appropriations, enough that the Ryan plan could pass the House.
The atmosphere is even more challenging now. The House Republican caucus has frayed under the continuing strain of budget and spending battles with Obama during the crises of last spring and summer. While Ryan looks like a fiscal ultra-hawk to mainstream America, inside the House caucus he is part of a leadership team that many conservatives feel sold them out to escape confrontations with the Obama Democrats.
And with the election getting closer, members from bright red districts fear backlashes in primaries by challengers to their right. Seeing Ohio Rep. Jean Schmidt squeezed out in a primary challenge sent a chill down a lot of spines. But for Republicans from swing districts, the general-election worries are growing by the day. A vote for the new Ryan plan could hurt in a primary for not being conservative enough and then hurt again in the general election for being too conservative.
But, Ryan isn’t willing to punt and Speaker John Boehner isn’t trying to make him. Part of the reason is that Republicans have been carping for so long about the failure of Democrats to pass budgets even when they had supermajority control of both Houses. But the other part is Boehner’s laissez-faire approach. However, there is a very real chance that the process will produce a stinging defeat for Boehner and his budget boss.
Ryan won’t win many friends in his own caucus with his plan and his PR push this week, but for him and his allies, it’s worth the risk in order to help re-establish the GOP’s identity as the party of fiscal conservatism.
Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.