Ryan budget, passed in House, becomes political weapon for both sides

Ryan budget is dead on arrival in the Senate, but is expected to play strong in 2012 races. Democrats say it wrecks Medicare, Republicans say they are willing to make tough decisions.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio takes questions during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington Thursday.

House Republicans passed a $3.53 trillion budget for the coming fiscal year on Thursday headlined by GOP priorities such as sharply lower taxes and a greater role for the private sector in Medicare. The measure, which aims to cut $3 trillion more over the next decade than President Obama's budget, advanced 228 to 191, without a single Democratic vote.

But as the GOP budget exits the House, it's likely hit its zenith as a viable budget plan. Now, it becomes a dead letter on the steps of the Senate and a political sledgehammer for Democrats and Republicans alike.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada has said the upper chamber will use the caps imposed by last summer’s debt-ceiling deal as guidelines for its spending this year and therefore doesn’t need a budget. That would make the coming year the third in a row where the Senate has eschewed a formal budget, which Senate leadership believes could set up tough votes for Democrats seeking reelection in 2012.

Politically, both parties are hoping to use the budget as a central part of their campaign messaging in the November elections.

For Republicans, the goal is to contrast the GOP’s leadership and willingness to make tough decisions on the nation’s long-term financial problems with what they allege is the fecklessness of the Democrat-held and budget-less Senate.

“I applaud my colleagues for the tough decisions they’ve made,” said House Speaker John Boehner (R) of Ohio, in a rare appearance on the the House floor Thursday, “to lay out a real vision of what we were to do if we had more control here in this town.”

That’s something the GOP thinks could help pay dividends beyond the Republican base.

“I think they may be trying to speak beyond Republicans, who are deeply concerned about the deficit and the debt, and say to independents: ‘Look, we’ve got such a serious problem moving ahead with whatever we as a government want to do that we have to start addressing this issue now,’ ” said Karlyn Bowman, an expert on public opinion at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

However, winning on the GOP budget would be contrary to what many observers believe the budget was during several special elections in 2011: a resounding political loser.

“Despite the House Republican enthusiasm last year for the Ryan budget, it didn’t end up so well for them,” says Sarah Binder, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It became politically damaging because it was associated simply with letting Medicare wither on the vine. The political costs from that Ryan budget – and being so explicitly connected to Ryan itself in some ways – it is surprising that we’re going to Round 2 with it a year later.”

Democrats, on the other hand, are looking to reprise their largely successful strategy from 2011: painting the Ryan budget as demolishing Medicare and cutting taxes for the wealthy while slashing spending on popular social-welfare programs. Democrats already have their rallying cry nearly down pat.

“Isn’t [the Ryan budget] astounding? Don’t you feel like taking to the streets and saying, ‘You’re getting ripped off in [Congress],’ ” said minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California at a briefing with reporters on Thursday. “That should be the focus of our attention.”

And it won’t be just in congressional races where Democrats will be wielding the Ryan budget as a weapon. Mitt Romney’s endorsement of the measure had Democrats across Capitol Hill linking the budget proposal as a “Romney-Ryan” accord.

The Ryan budget is "terrifying," said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D) of Oregon. "This is their banner. This is what, ostensibly, their presidential candidate is going to run on."

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