President Obama plans to wait until the House acts to offer his budget plan, which is more than four weeks late. Administration officials have not provided a release date or explained the unusual delay, although the White House has been working closely with Murray and Van Hollen.
Ryan declined to discuss policy changes under consideration, including accelerating measures that would end Medicare’s guarantee of open-ended coverage. Last year’s GOP budget delayed Medicare changes until 2023. And it made no explicit cuts to Social Security benefits, which Republican leaders have since argued should be reduced through a less-generous measure of inflation.
But Ryan has embraced the balanced-budget goal, telling reporters in January that it marked “a very defining moment for this session of Congress and our caucus in getting a down payment on the debt crisis and averting it.”
At a January retreat in Williamsburg, Ryan helped broker an agreement with Boehner on behalf of four conservative leaders: Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, and Reps. Jeb Hensarling (Tex.), Jim Jordan (Ohio), Tom Price (Ga.) and Steve Scalise (La.), all past chairmen of the committee. In consultation with Club for Growth President Chris Chocola, the congressmen had been plotting a strategy for handling a series of fiscal deadlines at the beginning of 2013 in hopes of “getting conservative solutions,” Price said.
Their offer to House leaders, Scalise said: “Start with the sequester, to implement real cuts. But then go a step further and lay out a vision by presenting a budget that balances in 10 years.”
Neither Boehner nor House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) had previously championed a balanced budget. In 2010, Boehner did not include it among the planks of a detailed campaign platform that helped the GOP win control of the House. In 2011, Cantor told reporters that a balanced budget was impossible “without severely impacting the benefits that current seniors and retirees are getting now.”
But as they gathered in Williamsburg, GOP leaders were on the ropes. Boehner had been weakened during the fiscal-cliff fight, and his splintered troops had been forced to swallow the first major tax increase in two decades. With a new debt-limit deadline looming in just a few weeks, House leaders were eager to unite the conference and avoid another politically damaging crisis.
Plus, the goal had become more realistic. So, after a discussion with the rank and file, the deal was struck. On Jan. 18, the four RSC leaders issued a statement: “As part of [the] agreement, the House will work to put the country on the path to a balanced budget in 10 years. House leadership also agreed to stand by the $974 billion discretionary number that is part of the sequestration process.”
Concerns soon bubbled up about the severity of cuts needed to meet the 10-year goal. Back at the Capitol, Rep. Charlie Dent (Pa.) rose during a meeting of GOP lawmakers to say he wasn’t sure he could support a balanced budget.
“During the campaign last year, I, too, talked about protecting those who are retired or near-retired. I, too, talked about holding everybody harmless [from Medicare cuts] up until the year 2023,” Dent explained later. “I realize, as time marches on, it’s going to be harder and harder to maintain those commitments. But how do you go from a 28-year balanced budget to a 10-year balanced budget?”
There are other red flags. Republican aides said Ryan is certain to keep about $700 billion in Medicare cuts enacted as part of Obama’s health initiative, reductions that he and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney excoriated on the campaign trail. And Ryan has said he will keep more than $600 billion in tax increases approved Jan. 1.
“After all these lectures that revenue isn’t part of the solution, it turns out revenue is a big part of their solution,” Van Hollen said.
If the House approves his budget plan, Ryan has said, it will set the stage for negotiations with Senate Democrats over the debt limit, which will again demand lawmakers’ attention in August.
“We are going to have to negotiate on top of [the sequester] for a new debt-ceiling increase . . . and we’re going to have to come out of that with a plan to get spending under control,” Ryan said. “I mean, we’re very serious about this.”