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Courage or political suicide?


FILE - House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., delivers remarks on Capitol Hill in February.

From NBC's Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Domenico Montanaro, and Ali Weinberg
*** Courage or political suicide? The plan that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan will unveil on Tuesday -- which would revamp Medicare and Medicaid -- is either a profile in courage, political suicide, or both. It’s courage because Ryan is seriously addressing entitlement reform, which is something that President Obama’s budget didn’t touch at all. But it’s also potentially political suicide because touching those programs, as well as Social Security, is highly unpopular. In our NBC/WSJ poll last month, 67% said cutting funding for Medicaid was unacceptable, and 76% said the thing about Medicare. (By comparison, the poll found that just 40% said a surtax on those making $1 million or more was unacceptable.)

*** Ryan’s plan: As Ryan unveiled on FOX yesterday, his plan would cut more than $4 trillion over 10 years. It wouldn’t increase taxes (“The problem with our deficit is not because Americans are taxed too little”). On Medicaid, the plan would turn that funding into a block grant to the states. And on Medicare, it would give seniors a subsidy -- though that amount would be means-tested -- to pick the insurance plan of their own. However, it wouldn’t apply to those 55 or older. 

*** Ryan’s plan vs. Obama’s health plan: Ryan defended his upcoming plan and criticized Democrats who would attack it. “They are going to demagogue us, and it's that demagoguery that has always prevented political leaders in the past from actually trying to fix the problem. We can't keep kicking this can down the road,” he said yesterday. “The president has punted. We're not going to follow suit. And, yes, we will be giving our political adversaries things to use against us in the next election, and shame on them if they do that.” But demagoguery is a two-way street. You could argue that demagogue Medicare is what Republicans did with last year’s health-care bill, and that helped them take back the House. And unlike Republicans -- who didn’t say anything about reforming Medicare or Medicaid in their “Pledge to America” last year -- Obama DID campaign on health care in 2008. “There is no electoral mandate for entitlement reform,” a GOP strategist told First Read.

*** Ryan has no bipartisan cover: There’s also no way -- with Obama in the White House and with Democrats in control of the Senate -- that Ryan’s proposal will become law, unless there are major changes. Ryan, however, is doing it without any major bipartisan cover, and remember that he didn’t vote for the bipartisan debt commission recommendations (a vote that we're guessing Ryan regrets today more than he did then; the "Ryan is a serious buy on budget issues" would be an easier sell had he voted with Tom Coburn on the debt commission). “There is a belief that the country is more ready now than ever before for major change on the entitlement front,” the same GOP strategist adds. “Maybe that's true, but you have to have a willing partner on these issues and right now, Senate Democrats and the White House or more than happy to watch Republicans take this on by themselves.” Of course, whether or not Ryan’s plan becomes politically toxic depends on how Democrats play this.

*** Playing fire with seniors: Here’s a final point on Ryan’s plan: Republicans are playing fire with seniors, despite the fact that his changes to Medicare won’t affect anyone older than 55. Obama’s most vulnerable demographic group has always been seniors, and Republicans won them BIG TIME last year, due in part to their Medicare attacks against Obama and the Democrats. But is that going to change after Tuesday?

*** The House deadline is Tuesday: In the current budget/spending battle, the Washington Post makes this important point: “Under new House Republican rules, any bill to be voted on Friday would have to be posted by Tuesday night. Republican leaders have also come out against approving another stopgap measure to keep federal agencies open a few extra days as they finish their work.”