As House Republicans prepared to vote Wednesday on a plan to suspend the debt limit, Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan made clear that the party is in no way abandoning its uncompromising approach to the budget battle with President Obama.
Republicans will insist that automatic spending cuts take effect March 1 unless other cuts are adopted, Ryan said. They may force a shutdown of the government on March 27 unless Democrats agree to additional cuts. And they will demand that any future increase in the debt limit – likely to be necessary this summer if the measure to suspend the current debt limit is adopted -- be paired dollar-for-dollar with spending cuts or other reforms.
“We have a sequester kicking in on March 1, a continuing resolution [on the budget] expiring on March the 27. We have budgets that, if the Senate decides to do its job this year, will come out in April,” Ryan said Wednesday at a breakfast with reporters. “These are the kind of points we think force the kind of conversation we think we have to have.”
When a reporter asked why Republicans would consider shutting down the government when the brinksmanship of the past two years has put the congressional approval rating in the teens, Ryan shot back: “So, we don’t have much to lose, do we? This is not about politics and what makes us popular. This is about what is the right thing to do.”
The breakfast, hosted by the Wall Street Journal, marked just the second time the Wisconsin Republican has met with reporters since he and GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney lost their bid for the White House in November. Wednesday’s far-ranging session covered topics ranging from Ryan’s hopes for immigration reform to his disappointment with his seating assignment on Inauguration Day – which left him in the bleachers with other lawmakers instead of standing up front in Vice President Biden’s spot.
“I was about eight rows behind” where he had hoped to be, Ryan joked.
On gun control, Ryan tacitly chastised the National Rifle Association for a much-maligned TV ad focused on the president’s daughters.
“Our kids are out of bounds,” Ryan said. “The Obama campaign [and] the national media respected that of my family, and we’re grateful for that. Our kids ought to be out of bounds.”
But for more than an hour at the Mayflower hotel downtown, the questions focused primarily on strategy in the coming year, when Republicans say they hope to force Obama and other Democrats to agree to even sharper cuts in government spending and to tackle a wholesale overhaul of federal health programs.
The bill under consideration in the House Wednesday would suspend the nation’s borrowing limit until May 18 to give each chamber of Congress breathing room to adopt a budget blueprint. Ryan, who will again draft the GOP budget, said he would eliminate deficits within the next decade, although he offered no guidance on how his plan would meet that goal. His past budget proposals took nearly 30 years to achieve balance, even after slashing Medicaid and social safety net programs, which is completely unacceptable to Democrats.
(On Wednesday, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said that panel would draft the first Senate budget proposal in four years.)
On another sticking point between the two parties, Ryan said Republicans would not consider additional tax revenue to close record budget deficits, as Democrats prefer. The “fiscal cliff” deal approved earlier this month would generate about $650 billion over the next decade, and that, Ryan said, is enough.
“They got their revenue increases already. We have yet to get anything as a result of it,” Ryan said. Reminded that Obama approved more than $2 trillion in spending cuts over the next decade as part of the last debt-limit fight in 2011, Ryan said: “That was last session. We’re going forward now.”
Ryan also said House Republicans will push for an overhaul of the tax code that trims rates and eliminates loopholes and deductions – including, perhaps, the preferential treatment of investment income.
“I think that debate ought to be open with respect to tax reform,” Ryan said. Although profits from capital gains and dividends have been taxed at lower rates than earned income for two decades, Ryan said it would be less important to preserve that difference “if your rates [on wages and salaries] are getting low enough.”
The preferential treatment of investment income amounts to the biggest break in the tax code for the ultra-wealthy and has been a cornerstone of GOP tax policy. But it caused problems last year for Romney’s presidential campaign when he revealed that he paid only about 13 percent of his income in taxes because his earnings came primarily from capital gains and dividends.
While a concession on investment income would likely be welcomed by Democrats, Obama has said he would insist that any new deficit-reduction package be balanced between spending cuts and fresh tax revenues. Asked where he sees ground for compromise, Ryan argued that reforming Social Security and Medicare over the long term is “the sweet spot in all this.”
“Changes that don’t offend either parties’ philosophy or ideology, I think,” Ryan said, “is where hopefully this ends up going.”