House Republican leadership is all in with Budget chairman Paul Ryan and has green-lighted the inclusion of entitlements in the budget he will produce later this spring. The move comes after a lengthy behind-the-scenes debate about the risks of going first on entitlements and against the advice of several Republican pollsters who were consulted on the decision.
House speaker John Boehner hinted at the coming decision in an appearance on “Meet the Press” on Sunday, saying, “You’ll see our budget where, I’ve got to believe, we’re going to deal with the entitlement problem.” Majority Leader Eric Cantor, at his pen-and-pad briefing yesterday, sought to sharpen the contrast with Obama. “We also will be presenting at the end of next month, towards the beginning of April, our own budget, a serious document that will reflect the type of path we feel we should be taking to address the fiscal situation, including addressing entitlement reforms, unlike the President did in his budget.” And last night, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy formally notified his Republican colleagues at a whip meeting that the leadership had decided to include entitlement reform in the budget.
Ryan has been working on his budget blueprint for months and had pushed – publicly and privately – to tackle entitlement reform in some manner. He had the support of many freshman Republicans who had been pressing their veteran colleagues to be aggressive on real spending reforms. These same freshmen, together with conservatives on the Republican Study Committee, pushed their caucus to make good on their original promise to cut $100 billion in spending this year.
Still, there remains considerable disagreement among elected Republicans about the wisdom of taking on entitlement reform. Many Republicans, including some with impeccable Tea Party credentials, are uneasy with the idea of making a case on entitlements immediately before a presidential election. They worry that the White House will demagogue any proposed changes to scare seniors, the most active and important voting bloc.
It is unclear what, exactly, Ryan will include in his budget proposal. One House Republican who favors entitlement reform was encouraged by the decision but believes that any proposed reforms would be watered down from those included in Ryan’s much-debated “Roadmap.” Another source familiar with GOP discussions on the issue, however, says that the coming proposals will be “significant” and bold.
Several Republicans said the decision to embrace entitlement reform came for two reasons. First, the problem is too big to be ignored. And, second, the failure of the White House to engage on entitlements in any way, even with the political cover provided by Obama’s deficit commission, created a political opportunity for Republicans to point out a “failure of leadership.” (Expect to hear that phrase a lot in the coming weeks.)
If there is genuine enthusiasm for “entitlement restructuring” – expect also to hear that phrase a lot in the coming weeks – it may not be limited to the House. Says one Republican aide: “I think you’ll see Senate Republicans moving in a similar direction.”