House Republicans rallied behind a slashing budget blueprint on Wednesday, passing a non-binding but politically imposing measure that promises a balanced federal ledger in 10 years with sweeping budget cuts and termination of health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act.
The 219-205 vote on the budget outline takes a mostly symbolic swipe at the government's chronic deficits. Follow-up legislation to actually implement the cuts isn't in the offing. Twelve Republicans opposed the measure, and not a single Democrat supported it.
The measure passed after a three-day debate that again exposed the hugely varying visions of the rival parties for the nation's fiscal future. Republicans promised a balanced budget by 2024 but would do so at the expense of poor people and seniors on Medicaid, lower-income workers receiving "Obamacare" subsidies, and people receiving food stamps and Pell Grants.
Democrats countered with a plan that would leave Obama's health care plan and rapidly growing health programs like Medicare intact, relying on $1.5 trillion in tax hikes over the coming decade to bring deficits down to sustainable but still-large levels in the $600 billion range.
The GOP plan, by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would cut more than $5 trillion over the coming decade to reach balance by 2024, relying on sharp cuts to domestic programs, but leaving Social Security untouched and shifting more money to the Pentagon and health care for veterans. It reprises a controversial plan to shift future retirees away from traditional Medicare and toward a subsidy-based health insurance option on the open market.
While staking out a hard line for the future, follow-up legislation is likely to be limited this year to a round of annual spending bills that will adhere to a bipartisan budget pact enacted in December.
But the Ryan plan does paint a picture of what Republicans would attempt if they claim the Senate this fall and the White House in 2016. Its cuts to entrenched benefit programs like Medicare and Medicaid, however, would be difficult to pass even if Republicans gained control of both the House and Senate in this fall's elections.
"It's totally out of touch with the priorities and values of the country," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. "This is a clear road map of what Republicans in Congress would do if they had the power to do it."
Republicans say the tough cuts they promise would strengthen the economy because less government borrowing would boost savings and investment. And they say it's simply unfair to saddle future generations with mountains of debt.
"The sooner we tackle these fiscal problems, the better off everybody is going to be, the faster the economy grows, and the more we can guarantee that the next generation inherits a debt-free future," said Ryan.
Republicans opposing the bill were mostly tea party adherents such as Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky, as well as several members of the Georgia delegation who are competing in a Senate primary. A handful of more moderate members from the Northeast, including Reps. Chris Gibson of New York and Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey, also opposed it.
At issue is the arcane congressional budget process, which employs a nonbinding measure known as a budget resolution to set forth goals for future taxes, spending and deficits. But follow-up legislation is usually limited to one-year appropriations bills. The House Appropriations Committee has already approved two of its least controversial bills, those funding veterans' programs and the budget for Congress itself.
Senate Democrats have announced they won't bother with a budget plan this year, relying on Ryan's December pact with Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray, D-Wash., to guide consideration of this year's round of appropriations bills.
Ryan's plan revives a now-familiar list of spending cuts to promise balance, including $2.1 trillion over 10 years in health care subsidies and coverage under the Affordable Care Act; $732 billion in cuts to Medicaid and other health care programs; and almost $1 trillion in cuts to other benefit programs like food stamps, Pell Grants and farm subsidies.
The measure also promises deep, probably unrealistic cuts to domestic programs like education, health research and grants to local governments that are funded each year through annual appropriations bills.
Ryan's plan also reprises a failed strategy from last year to cut domestic agency operating budgets and shift the money to the Pentagon after 2015. When Republicans tried that last year, the House was unable to pass the follow-up spending bills implementing the cuts. They haven't even drafted legislation that would implement their polarizing plans for Medicare.
Republicans say the new "premium support" system for future Medicare retirees who are now 55 or younger would prevent the budget from spiraling out of control as more baby boomers retire and the present system collapses. They also say the redesigned Medicare program would offer seniors more choices and curb costs. Critics, however, say the Medicare subsidies wouldn't keep up with inflation but would require sharply higher out-of-pocket costs for future seniors.