It’s shaping up to be spring 2011 redux. Just under a year ago, Republicans — euphoric after a midterm election landslide, and overzealous in their interpretation of their mandate — passed a budget that called for phasing out Medicare over the coming years and replacing it with a subsidized private insurance system for newly eligible seniors.
The backlash was ugly. But Republicans seem to have forgotten how poisonous that vote really was, and remains…because they’re poised to do it again. This time they’re signaling they’ll move ahead, with a modified plan — one that, though less radical, would still fundamentally remake and roll back one of the country’s most popular and enduring safety net programs.
“We’re not backing off any of our ideas, any of our solutions,” GOP budget chairman Paul Ryan said last week in an interview with Fox.
Why on earth would Republicans put the whole party back on the line? Particularly after a year of serial brinkmanship and overreach that has dragged their popularity down to record lows?
The answers speak as much to the hubris of this GOP majority as it does to the fact that the party’s in thrall to a movement that demands unyielding commitment to a platform of reducing taxes on high-income earners and rolling back popular, though expensive, federal support programs.
That creates a dilemma: Vote against the platform and face a primary. Vote for it, and face constituent backlash.
House Republicans will now have to choose between reigniting that backlash, or admitting to constituents that they erred the first time around.
To make that choice easier, Ryan’s signaling he’ll swap out his old Medicare plan with a new one — one that he actually co-wrote with a Democratic Senator. That’s what Democrats think he’s going to do, and if they’re right, it will allow him and members of his party to claim they’ve moved significantly in the Democrats’ direction.
Here are all the details of the so-called Ryan-Wyden plan. There are two key differences between this plan and the original Ryan plan. The first is that Ryan-Wyden would preserve a Medicare-like public option as a competitor to private plans in its insurance exchange, and allow seniors to buy into it. The second is that it would leave the rate at which the program’s costs are allowed to grow exactly where it is in current law — forcing seniors to pay less out of pocket than would the original Ryan plan.
So substantively it is, indeed, a step or two left for the GOP. But here’s the key: it ultimately hands Medicare’s benefit guarantee over to a whimsical market, instead of keeping it in government hands, where it’s been for nearly 50 years. It would constitute a massive policy shift to the right. And that’s why Democrats abandoned Ron Wyden en masse the day the plan was unveiled.
House leadership and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee couldn’t be happier. They think the GOP’s walking right back into a political buzz saw, confident the public won’t be impressed by the technical modifications to the plan, or sympathetic to the fact that a single Senate Democrat endorsed it. It’s a lesson Dems learned the hard way during health care reform — all the hair splitting over specifics didn’t stop Republicans from characterizing every permutation of it as “Obamacare.” And the label stuck. Democrats are betting they can pull the same trick in reverse this year. Indeed, as you can tell from the poster below that’s already being distributed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, they liked “Ryan Plan 1” so much, they’re lining round the block for the sequel.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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