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Republican lawmaker's budget plan gets Obama's attention

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010; A03

Rep. Paul D. Ryan says he is determined to make sure the Republican Party is viewed as "the alternative party, not the opposition party."

That is a goal President Obama embraced when he visited House Republicans at their policy retreat in Baltimore last week, and he singled out Ryan as someone he would like to work with -- even mentioning budget legislation the Wisconsin Republican co-wrote.

Released two days before the unusual back-and-forth session between Obama and the GOP, the bill sponsored by Ryan and five other House members would seek to reduce the deficit and spur economic growth by cutting the tax rate on corporations, shifting future Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries to private insurance plans, and both raising the retirement age gradually to 70 and reducing the growth of benefits to make Social Security solvent. Even Democrats have acknowledged that it is one of the few plans offered by a member of either party that would lower the long-term budget deficit.

But while Obama called Ryan a "pretty sincere guy" and a person willing to "study this stuff and take it pretty seriously," the Wisconsin lawmaker's bill illustrates the wide gulfs on ideology and policy that separate Democrats and Republicans, complicating any effort between the two sides for compromise, despite Obama's recent calls for more bipartisanship. And those divides will become even deeper because it is an election year.

Ryan, who said he had met Obama only briefly a couple of times, said he was surprised that the president talked about him and his ideas in the session. "I think he was paying me a compliment," the soft-spoken Republican said in an interview in his office and smiled as he spoke of Obama. But Ryan didn't see a lot of room for compromise.

By Sunday, less than 72 hours after Obama praised Ryan, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag was highlighting potentially controversial elements of the plan. Ryan, meanwhile, was leading the GOP opposition to what he called the president's "far-left budget" and attacked the administration's support for a fiscal commission to examine how to reduce the national debt as "not leadership," but "punting."

"We have a huge difference of opinion with the Democrats on this," Ryan said. "And this is perhaps the greatest difference between the two parties."

Ryan, 40, who was first elected to Congress in 1998, is part of a bloc of the House's most conservative members who want to offer a sharp contrast in this year's midterm elections instead of just attacking Democrats. "We need to be proactive, and we need to put big ideas out there," he said. "You run the risk of criticism, but I feel morally obligated to do that."

In a statement, Orszag called Ryan "a smart and engaging leader. . . . I always enjoy debating and talking with him." But the budget director expressed disagreement with Ryan's legislation, which includes a provision that Democrats have long opposed, such as allowing people to invest money they would pay in payroll taxes for Social Security into personal accounts and keeping tax cuts in place for people who earn more than $250,000 a year.

Orszag made that criticism public in hearings on Obama's budget plan.

Other Democrats expressed similar concerns.

"House Republicans are again trying to turn back the clock to the failed policies of President [George W.] Bush," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz (D-Pa.) said the Republican plan would "end Medicare as we know it."

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a co-sponsor of the legislation, responded that Obama predicted the kind of criticism Democrats would lodge against the bill, even as he lamented it as "how our politics works right now."

"There is a political vulnerability to doing anything that tinkers with Medicare. And that's probably the biggest savings that are obtained through Paul's plan," Obama said in Baltimore. "I raise that because we're not going to be able to do anything about any of these entitlements if what we do is characterized, whatever proposals are put out there, as, well, you know, that the other party is being irresponsible; the other party is trying to hurt our senior citizens."

But even Ryan's fellow GOP colleagues will not endorse his plan. Asked Thursday about the "Roadmap for America's Future," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) dismissed the plan by saying "it's his," referring to Ryan. "I know the Democrats are trying to say that it's the Republican leadership. But they know that's not the case."

Boehner declined to specify anything in the legislation that he disagrees with, and when House Republicans release a formal alternative to Obama's budget in a few weeks, party leaders expect it to include some of Ryan's ideas. In his role as the top Republican on the House Budget Committee, Ryan wrote the House GOP budget plan last year that Boehner and other party leaders signed off on, and that included many provisions similar to those in the Roadmap, such as the tax cuts and changes to Medicare.

Even though some in his party are not interested in pushing out big ideas as part of the midterm campaigns, Ryan said he wants to promote his fiscally conservative proposal, aiming to give Americans a sense of what Republicans will do if they win back control of Congress. His long-term goal is to build a consensus around his vision to reduce the deficit, which he views as a problem the country must start solving immediately. But he doesn't expect Democrats to be signing on anytime soon.

"They are more interested in moving us toward what I would call a European-style welfare state," Ryan said. "The principles that I use they would disagree with. And that's why it's difficult to see our worlds coming together."

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