In all, the House Republicans’ budget for fiscal 2012 — to be presented by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the Budget Committee chairman — represents the most ambitious alteration of federal benefits since President George W. Bush’s ill-fated attempt to overhaul Social Security in 2005.
But the proposal, which Ryan calls “The Path for Prosperity,” will arrive at a time when Congress is already choking on a much less ambitious effort to cut thisyear’s budget, leading to the threat of a government shutdown.
So their proposal also amounts to an enormous bet, both on Ryan’s political charisma and on the depth of the fiscal concerns that gave Republicans control of the House.
Last fall, House Republicans promised an “adult conversation” with the American public about the nation’s finances. That conversation, they have concluded, includes a talk about cutting benefits.
“This is America’s moment to advance a plan for prosperity,” Ryan wrote in an op-ed published in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal. “ . . . We can reform government so that people don’t have to reorient their lives for less. We can grow our economy, promote opportunity, and encourage upward mobility. This budget is the new House majority’s answer to history’s call. It is now up to all of us to keep America exceptional.”
The 2012 budget is entirely separate from the one that Republicans and Democrats are still fighting over for 2011, and it has a long way to go to take effect. Even if Ryan’s plan passed the House, it would need approval from the Democrat-controlled Senate, which is not likely.
On Tuesday, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Democrats believe that programs such as Medicare and Medicaid could be preserved by making them run more efficiently. Republicans, he said, would cut them across the board.
“You cannot say, ‘Don’t touch these programs.’ That will lose,” Schumer said. He said Democrats instead would “come up with a better proposal that reduces the deficit, but basically preserves the [programs] by eliminating waste and inefficiency.”
But the budget is still significant, as a mark of House Republicans’ willingness to break one of Washington’s great political taboos: tinkering with the programs that pump federal money into daily life.
Last fall, while Republicans were trying to retake the House, their leadership seemed to distance themselves from Ryan’s budget plans. Now — even before they have resolved the year’s first big budget fight — GOP leaders are embracing his call for another one.
“The public is in a very different place than they have been in the past on these issues,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). Without reform, Steel said, these programs would eventually run short of money. “You have to protect these programs, and the status quo doesn’t do that.”