House Republicans passed their 2012 budget resolution Friday afternoon, sending to the Senate a blueprint that would transform major entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid, lower taxes and cut some $6 trillion over the ensuing decade.
The 235-193 vote split almost strictly along party lines. Every Democrats voted against Congress Paul Ryan’s plan, while only four Republicans declined to back it: Walter Jones of North Carolina, David McKinley of West Virginia, the iconoclastic Ron Paul of Texas and Denny Rehberg of Montana, who is running for the U.S. Senate in a state with high Medicare enrollment.
Ryan’s budget blueprint is almost certainly dead on arrival in the upper chamber. But just a day after a bloc of 59 Republicans rebelled over the budget deal brokered by House Speaker John Boehner, the vote hands House Republicans a symbolic victory as members head home for a two-week spring recess. By holding together on Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity,” Republicans temporarily papered over the tears emerging in the party’s fabric as it grapples with the question of how hard to press in its agenda to cut spending.
For a nonbinding vote, the day’s exchanges were heated, with moments of rancor and dashes of levity. Nine protesters were ejected from the House gallery for interrupting the debate over the budget blueprint by loudly breaking into song. (The protesters, some of whom sang a variation of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” were later arrested.) During closing arguments, House Democrats booed Ryan when the House Budget Chairman blasted President Obama for failing to lead. “Will we be remembered as the Congress that did nothing?” Ryan said. “This is our defining moment.”
Democrats are betting the moment will haunt Republicans, who run the risk of alienating constituents by transforming Medicaid into a block-grant program administered by states and replacing Medicare with a system that offers seniors subsidies that partially cover the cost of private insurance. (The Medicare component saves money because the subsidies would not grow at the same pace as escalating health-care costs.) “The Republican budget breaks the promise that this country has made to seniors,” Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi said. “It ends Medicare as we know it.” At a morning press conference, Democrats derided Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” as a “Road to Ruin,” hoisting yellow-and-black signs reading “HANDS OFF MY MEDICARE” and chanting slogans. Chris Van Hollen, the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee, brought visual aides to the floor that showed CBO estimates of how Ryan’s vision would decrease benefits for seniors over time. “The House Republican plan places the burden of debt reduction on those who can least afford it, ends Medicare as we know it and doubles health care costs for seniors in order to pay for more than a trillion dollars in tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement that closely echoed the denunciations pouring forth from the Democratic side of the floor.
Republicans used the debate to set the tone for the spending skirmishes on the horizon. “The President wants a clean bill. The American people will not tolerate it,” Boehner said, before borrowing Obama’s favorite rhetorical signpost: “Now let me be clear: there will be no debt limit increase unless it is accompanied by meaningful spending cuts and budget reforms.”
“I can tell you, our conference is united,” Majority Leader Eric Cantor told reporters this morning. Democrats put that unity to the test with a procedural gambit that nearly worked. During a vote over an alternate budget blueprint proposed by the Republican Study Committee — a group helmed by Rep. Jim Jordan that includes some 175 of the conference’s most conservative members — Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer instructed his side to vote “present,” hoping to lower the bar for passage so the measure would succeed and forestall a vote on the Ryan budget. The tactic touched off a chaotic few minutes, with members shouting across the chamber to corral colleagues. The RSC plan, which wielded an even bigger machete than Ryan’s, nabbed 119 Republican votes, with 120 GOPers voting against it. So much for unity.
In a floor speech today, Van Hollen scoffed at Republicans’ lofty praise for Ryan’s plan, calling it “the same old ideological agenda on steroids.” That’s party true. But as Congress heads off on its spring hiatus, it’s worth pausing to reflect on the GOP’s rightward lurch over the past year. Fourteen months ago, I profiled Ryan, who was attracting notice for propagating his “Roadmap” at a time when Democrats were portraying his party as an ideological graveyard intent mostly on obstructing the majority. At the time, party leaders lauded Ryan but wouldn’t touch his ideas with a 10-ft. pole. Now it’s been formally endorsed by both the GOP leadership and its rank-and-file. “I put this out there to get the debate going and show a different vision,” Ryan told me. “I don’t expect it to be the platform of the party. I expect it to launch a debate about what America is to become.”
It’s now become the platform of the party — and the centerpiece of what will be the biggest policy fight in the nation for months to come.