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."
Steel, meanwhile, ripped Democrats' weeklong volley of attacks targeting the "Republican plan," which included broadsides from White House Budget Director Peter Orszag, the Democratic National Committee and practically every Member of House Democratic leadership. "It is sad that at a point that they control the House, Senate and the White House they are so bereft of ideas they are taking one bill from one Republican Member of the House and holding blogger calls and conference calls about it," Steel added.
Ryan himself has offered blistering comebacks to the Democratic attacks, accusing them of pursuing demagoguery instead of the bipartisanship they claim to seek.
"It's obvious that they've not even read the plan, that they are mischaracterizing the plan, and they have decided to vilify any attempt to deal with our fiscal situation," Ryan said.
Ryan said it was easier for Democrats to attack him than to offer a plan of their own. "I am one guy from Wisconsin who put a plan out there that [the Congressional Budget Office] says does the job. ... Even the president of the United States hasn't put a plan out there."
There was a prickly jousting between Ryan and Orszag at a budget hearing last week, with Orszag having to admit that the president's budget was unsustainable and repeatedly punting to the idea of a bipartisan fiscal commission.
Ryan said he doesn't expect every other Republican to sign on to his ideas and said they shouldn't be attacked for his proposal. "I am not the leader of the Republican Party, and I don't expect everyone to agree to what I'm proposing," he said.
But Ryan said he found it ironic that President Barack Obama singled out his plan as a serious one worthy of debate when he appeared before Republicans in an unprecedented televised question-and-answer period only to find his plan pilloried nonstop by the Democratic Party at full roar for the following week.
"It guarantees benefits for people, which is more than what the Democrats are doing," Ryan said. "These programs are going bankrupt. We save these programs for future generations, and, yes, spending increases every year for these programs," Ryan said.
Democrats, meanwhile, called the Ryan proposal a political gift and said that Republicans enjoyed a relatively free ride last year because Democrats were busy passing ambitious bill after bill and the press had little time or inclination to delve deeply into the Republican alternatives.
That will change now that Republicans are seen as having the potential to return to power, Democratic aides said.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), one of the most skilled Democratic attack dogs who hails from the senior-filled Sunshine State, ripped the Ryan plan as the "Screw America's Seniors Act" and predicted Republicans wouldn't be able to run from it fast enough.
"This is the emperor has no clothes' moment," she said. "They've given us a glimpse behind the curtain, and I'm glad they did it in February," she said.
One aide called Ryan's plan a "tone deaf" proposal that is starting to mobilize and unite the Democratic Party.
"If Republicans seriously believe in privatizing Social Security, dismantling Medicare and turning it into a voucher system, and giving big tax cuts to the rich, they can test-drive that idea with the American people," said one aide.
Steel contended the attacks wouldn't stick. "They can't run nationwide on this because it's not the official Republican alternative. It's one Member's bill," he said.