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House Republicans Divided on Debt Strategy

Rep. Paul Ryan (Wis.) has presented his fellow Republicans with a dilemma.

The Budget ranking member’s audacious plan to balance the budget by reinventing slimmer versions of Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and the tax code is forcing Republicans to determine how specific they want to be about taking on the enormous federal debt.

Republicans hope to use the exploding debt to their advantage in the fall elections. But so far, Ryan is one of few Members on either side of the aisle willing to dive into the details.

For the past year, Senate Republican leaders have largely avoided putting forward alternative visions to the major bills Democrats have offered, preferring to cherry-pick politically charged amendments instead. House Republicans have taken a somewhat different tack, offering alternative bills. But in some cases, such as in their health care package, offering piecemeal ideas that eschewed politically tough choices.

The Republican game plan appears to have worked to some degree, with the Democrats’ big climate change and health initiatives stalled and a huge GOP upset victory in the Massachusetts Senate special election. But some conservatives have wanted more substance on issues such as Medicare cuts. Republican leaders bashed the Democratic health care plans for cutting more than $400 billion out of Medicare, but GOP budget hawks view controlling Medicare costs as essential to balancing the budget.

A Republican who asked to have his name withheld said the party’s leadership and rank and file aren’t ready to follow Ryan’s lead. “There’s a lot of worry that we beat the Democrats up on health care for cutting Medicare and now we’re going to turn around and do it,” the Republican said.

Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.), who has signed on to Ryan’s bill, said items such as controlling Medicare and Social Security costs might have been politically impossible to talk about before, but not now.

“The public will accept bolder solutions when the problem is bigger, when there is a crisis like there is now,” Campbell said.

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said leadership should embrace the Ryan proposal, or something like it.

“We’ve got to be bold. I think people are ready for that,” Flake said. “We are offering no other plan that we can claim deals with the deficit and debt in a legitimate way.

“If the Democrats want to chide us for dealing with the deficit in a serious way, let them,” he said.

But Republican leaders aren’t about to align themselves with something as provocative as ultimately converting Medicare into a voucher program though not affecting current benefits, as Ryan’s plan would do. Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) last week made it clear that Ryan’s plan was “his plan,” although he declined to criticize any particular piece of it when he was asked to do so in a press conference.

“Ryan has offered his road map, like he did last year,” Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said. “We like good, reform-minded ideas from anywhere we can find them. Everyone knows it’s different from the official Republican alternative.”

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