Are Senate Republicans Backing Away From “Entitlement Reform?”

So it seems the FY 2016 congressional budget resolution will not include the kind of detail that past House-passed Ryan Budgets contained, particularly when it comes to controversial “entitlement reform” proposals like shifting Medicare to a premium-support system or devolving Medicaid to the states. There will be numbers, but no explicit assumptions.

TNR’s Brian Beutler diagnoses this shift as due to Senate Republican reluctance to associate themselves with Ryan’s views on entitlement reform, and foretells a position among Senate Republican candidates that might undercut any more radical position among House candidates or even the GOP presidential nominee. Just as importantly, he argues, this might well rule out some post-election blitzkrieg via the budget process:

Back in 2012, Republicans hoped to skip directly from controlling the House alone to controlling everything. If Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan had won, the party would’ve been well prepared to implement the kinds of policies Ryan had trained his foot soldiers in Congress to vote for. Instead, the slower process of expanding majorities has exposed basic weaknesses in their position.

In 2012, Grover Norquist could, with some authority, declare: “We are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget…. We just need a president to sign this stuff.”

That line of thinking doesn’t hold up anymore.

I hope Brian’s right, but I’m not so sure. It’s not so much the Ryan budget “brand” or any votes on its components that is putting pressure on Republicans in both Houses to support radical entitlement reform. It’s the internal dynamics of Republican fiscal policy that’s driving it, and despite lower budget deficits, the math is no better than ever for the GOP. Its sense of urgency over the need for higher defense spending has returned, and it’s increasingly likely the ancient Republican goal of lowering upper-end income tax rates will be combined with a drive for zero taxes on investments and estates plus the Reformicons’ favorite family tax bennies. Accomplishing all that, or even pretending to, without big cuts in the cost of Medicare and Medicaid (and probably Social Security) won’t be possible. And there’s no way to reach the kind of “savings” numbers Republican budgets will assume without Medicare privatization or Medicaid “devolution” schemes–unless they want to embrace single-payer!

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.