Ryan budget update brings new risks for local legislators

Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) was a convenient target for Democrats last year during his run for vice president. Republicans are hoping for a Democratic budget target of their own this year.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) was a convenient target for Democrats last year during his run for vice president. Republicans are hoping for a Democratic budget target of their own this year. (J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE / AP)
Posted: March 11, 2013

WASHINGTON - Spring training is elsewhere, but Democrats in the Capitol are warming up for some practice swings this week.

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.) is about to pitch his latest spending plan, and Democrats are lining up to take hacks at it, much as they did to his previous proposals in last year's congressional elections.

When Ryan was running for vice president, Democrats in 2012 sank their teeth into his budgets and the local Republican incumbents who had supported them. Democratic challengers charged that Republican congressmen in the Philadelphia suburbs who backed his plans were too extreme for their moderate districts.

Now, as Ryan seeks to balance his budget in 10 years instead of the 28 he previously proposed, new cuts await - and so do more attacks on the region's Republicans who will be asked to support them.

"Every time they unveil a budget, they unveil their misplaced priorities," said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, the head of the Democratic congressional campaign arm. "Whenever they do that, it further alienates the moderate voters, sensible voters and inures to our benefit."

Local Republican congressmen who have backed Ryan's previous plans argue that the budgets make tough choices to get the government's finances in order and preserve programs such as Medicare.

But they are well aware of the political risk involved, and will have to consider how the conservative plans - likely to include deep spending cuts and no tax increases - will be received in their battleground districts.

"These things are always interpreted for their purely political purposes," Rep. Pat Meehan (R., Pa.) said in an interview Wednesday. That morning, he had expressed his views on the coming plan to colleagues involved in crafting the budget. "You don't want to continue to take tough votes that don't serve a commonsense end."

While tea party conservatives would like to pull the budget to the right, Ryan will likely need support from more centrist lawmakers like Meehan and others from the region to get his plan through the House, with votes expected as early as this month. As often happens in a caucus with strong conservative voices, members from the Philadelphia suburbs will face a choice between supporting their party and inviting attack in their middle-of-the-road districts.

Some concerns from area Republicans have already come to the surface.

"I certainly want to be supportive of reaching a balanced budget sooner rather than later," said Rep. Charlie Dent (R., Pa.). "The questions are: What choices are we going to have to make in order to get there?"

Last year, Republicans were bombarded with attacks over Ryan's plans to save money by converting Medicare into a voucherlike system and, he argued, preserve the program in the long run.

Days after Mitt Romney announced that Ryan would be his running mate, Democratic challengers in the region's congressional races scampered to a South Philadelphia senior center to warn that Republicans would "end Medicare as we know it."

Ryan is expected to include his Medicare plan again, but to save more costs he considered dropping a pledge that it wouldn't affect anyone 55 or older, a move that would have cut against past assurances.

Dent, who represents the Allentown area, was among the House moderates who pushed back, and the idea was reportedly dropped. But that means Ryan will have to find deeper savings elsewhere, on top of the social-service reductions already unveiled in his past plans.

Still, Republicans see several advantages in another budget fight this year.

For one, Democrats tried the Ryan budget attacks a year ago, and they didn't work. Every local Republican congressman was reelected, with the help of friendly new district maps, even though President Obama handily won Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Ryan's budget-balancing goal has also been made easier by recent tax increases and spending cuts, including the much-feared sequester. Using his previous plans' steep cuts as a starting point, he needs an estimated $100 billion in additional savings by 2023 to reach his goal - a relatively small amount in the context of overall federal spending, which means he may not have to make drastic new proposals.

"The reality is, it's not that big of a jump from where we've already been," Meehan said.

He acknowledged, though, that even relatively small changes in the scope of a massive spending plan can make for potent campaign fodder. (Voters typically favor balanced budgets but often balk at the specific cuts required.)

At the same time, a sound spending plan can nullify criticism, said Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the right-leaning American Action Forum and a former director of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget office.

"They are countered by something Americans very much like, which is a balanced budget," he said.

Lastly, Republicans believe that this year they will get a chance to get up to bat as well. After years of GOP complaints, Democrats have agreed to introduce their own budget in the Senate.

While the plans are more philosophical than practical - actual spending is set by appropriations bills - the Democratic blueprint will set up a competing vision that Republicans can take aim at and contrast with their own choices.

"Every time we've voted for these budgets, we've put numbers to the principles that we've stood for, and the Senate hasn't acted in four years," Meehan said, pointing out that the iPad wasn't even released in 2009, the last time the Democrat-controlled chamber passed a full-blown fiscal plan. He said Democrats "get to have the argument both ways - they can argue the politics without having to put themselves on the line."

That's what local Republicans say they have done for the last two years. They'll soon be asked to do it again, even as Democrats strap on their batting gloves.

Contact Jonathan Tamari

at jtamari@phillynews.com.

Follow on Twitter @JonathanTamari. Read his blog 'Capitol Inq' at www.philly.com/CapitolInq.

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