House approves $3.5 trillion budget plan proposed by Paul Ryan

The House of Representatives on Thursday approved a $3.5 trillion budget plan proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on a 228 to 191 vote, largely along party lines.

It was a dramatic departure from the night before, when lawmakers took up a plan based on the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction proposal.

Given a chance to vote for Simpson-Bowles for the first time — after many months of praise from officials in both parties for a proposal that would slash deficits by $4 trillion — the House rejected the measure soundly. Just 38 members voted for it. Supporters included 16 Republicans and 22 Democrats.

It appears that Simpson-Bowles, crafted more than a year ago by a bipartisan presidential commission, has become the idea a whole lot of people in both parties love to love — but virtually no one wants to vote for.

“In a way, it was a hypocrisy litmus test,” said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), of the Simpson-Bowles foray. “In their hearts, they want to be for this. . . . It’s a courage issue.”

Members rendered judgment on both plans in the midst of a series of budget votes this week ahead of the upcoming spring break recess that begins Friday.

The Ryan plan, which proposes cutting tax rates and a dramatic revamping of Medicare to curb costs for future retirees, faces all but certain rejection in the Senate but will frame the parties’ election-year debate on fiscal issues. The plan cuts $5.3 trillion over the next decade — entirely through deep cuts in entitlements and agency spending.

The House vote breakdown was 228 Republicans in favor, and 181 Democrats and 10 Republicans opposed.

After the vote, Republicans ground out press releases praising the vote for proposing “real solutions” to improve the economy. Democrats responded with a round of statements decrying the GOP effort to revamp Medicare.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Thursday that the Ryan plan would create “a segmented replacement for Medicare that would burden seniors and end the program as we know it.” House Speaker John A. Boehner said it would set “a course that’s sustainable not just for our generation, but for our kids and our grandkids.”

In many ways, the bitter debate and lopsided vote were a repeat of a House debate over a Ryan plan introduced a year ago.

For those holding out hope that Congress will find its way to the bipartisan grand bargain to reduce the deficit that eluded Boehner and Obama in summertime talks to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, it was Wednesday night’s vote on the Simpson-Bowles model that said more about Washington’s deep divide.

Dozens of House members who signed a letter in the fall urging Congress’s special deficit reduction super committee to “go big” and craft an ambitious plan to cut debt along the lines of Simpson-Bowles nevertheless voted against the budget Wednesday.

Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette (Ohio), who sponsored the Simpson-Bowles budget amendment along with Cooper, said they had dozens of promises from colleagues to back it. And then, “the fax machines and the e-mails lit up around here around 6 p.m. And they never stopped.”

Flooding Capitol Hill were notes of opposition to the Simpson-Bowles legislation from advocacy groups on the left and right, with veiled threats to pull campaign dollars or fund super PAC ads against those who crossed them.

Anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist warned that the plan raised taxes too much. It called for a revamp of the tax code to close loopholes and ultimately bring in $1 trillion in new money for the government over the next decade.

Labor groups said it raised taxes too little — noting that the plan called for half of the tax revenue than originally endorsed by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles but still called for deep cuts and a reduction in Social Security benefits over time.

The original Simpson-Bowles report was shelved when only 11 of 18 members of the commission endorsed the proposal. It needed a supermajority of 14 to advance to Congress.

Leaders in both parties had kind words for the joint effort. But they still urged their members to defeat it.

House Speaker John A. Boehner cast LaTourette and Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), another leader of the effort, as misguided friends, working on the right ideas at the wrong time.

Top Democrats, meanwhile, said the budget blueprint didn’t hew closely enough to the original Simpson-Bowles proposal on taxes.

Others said the blueprint was not detailed enough. Like all budgets, it set broad targets and called for congressional committees to come up with policies to match the numbers.

And for some lawmakers inclined to a big deal, the doomed fate of the Simpson-Bowles budget this week meant a vote of support was all risk and no political reward. Its sponsors always acknowledged that it could not pass and they were instead hoping for a respectable vote count to spur negotiations.

“It’s not likely going anywhere,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), one of those who signed the fall letter urging a big deal but voted “no.”

The hope now is that quiet work by a bipartisan group of senators on similar ideas could find support during the lame duck congressional session after the November election.

But Cooper said he now fears that after the election, Congress will insist they must wait for newly elected members to take office. And then they’ll say they want to wait for the next election.

“This is the manana Congress,” he said. “There’s always going to be a tomorrow.”

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