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The Senate vote this week on the budget blueprint of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will be a gut-check moment for Republicans, who risk angering constituents no matter what they do.
After seeing GOP presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich get pummeled for calling the House Budget chairman's plan to overhaul Medicare "right-wing social engineering," Republicans have begun to realize that opposing Ryan does not come without a cost from the party's base.
But changing Medicare into a subsidy for private insurance is a big loser in general election polls, and Ryan's plan is giving Democrats new hope that they will take back the House and retain the Senate in 2012.
The upcoming Senate vote puts vulnerable GOP incumbents, such as Sens. Olympia Snowe (Maine) and Dick Lugar (Ind.), both of whom face primary challenges, in a particularly tight spot. Several others remain undecided, including Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), who has broken with her party on several key votes.
Lugar said Monday that he would vote for Ryan's budget.
"I support the creative thinking ... expressed by the Congressman," Lugar said. "Creativity is going to be required to save Medicare." He noted that under Ryan's plan, people 55 and older would stay in traditional Medicare.
Sen. Scott Brown, however, appeared to do an about-face on the issue, announcing in an opinion piece in Politico that he would vote "no" after he had been quoted in the Newburyport Daily News saying he would support it.
Medicare changes are needed to cut costs, "but I do not think it requires us to change Medicare as we know it," the Massachusetts Republican said. The language that he used, some Democrats pointed out, appeared to come verbatim from their talking points.
But Sen. Rand Paul, who was elected under the tea party mantle last year, said that he expects not only to get a vote this week on his plan to balance the budget in five years but also that he would vote against Ryan's plan. The Kentucky Republican said Ryan's budget doesn't reach balance until the late 2030s and adds trillions in debt over the next decade.
"I can't vote to add that much debt," he said.
Democrats aren't shy about saying the vote on the Ryan budget this week is intended to set up Republicans politically for 2012. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to bring up the House-passed budget for a vote even though he is not obligated to do so and has said it would be "foolish" for Democrats to put forward a budget of their own.
"This issue will have staying power and be a defining issue in 2012," Democratic Conference Vice Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said in a conference call Monday with reporters.