Has the Ryan Plan Become the Third Rail of the GOP?

Republicans in Congress aren't eager to either criticize or vote for the proposal

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is not pushing Republican senators to vote for the budget plan, created by Rep. Paul Ryan and passed by the House, that dramatically changes Medicare. McConnell says he's voting for it, but the rank-and-file are free to vote their conscience, The Hill's Alexander Bolton reports. That means more Republicans might vote against the controversial bill. That also leaves the Ryan budget "twisting in the wind," Bolton says. In the House, party leadership worked to keep the number of defectors down to four. McConnell's decision demonstrates how uneasy many Republicans are with the politics of tinkering with Medicare even as Newt Gingrich's battering, for criticizing the Ryan plan, shows the proposal is, in the words of pundits and Democrats, the "new conservative litmus test."

A Republican Senator told Bolton--anonymously, of course--that Ryan "made a serious tactical mistake by spelling out Medicare reforms in his budget plan." The senator griped, "All Ryan had to do was set an overall number and leave it up to the policymaking committees how to come up with the savings." Instead, he gave Democrats something to hammer them with, and "The only people talking about Medicare are Republicans, and we're just arguing with ourselves," the senator said.

And here's that Democratic ammo the senator was speaking of: the Democratic National Committee has put out a video describing the Medicare overhaul as the Republican's litmus test, playing off the beating Newt Gingrich has taken from conservatives after criticizing Ryan's budget as "right-wing social engineering." A DNC spokesperson tells First Read, "If there's one lesson we learned from the ferocity with which Republicans attacked their supposed 'ideas man' and the speed with which he caved, it's that dismantling Medicare is the new litmus test for any would-be Republican presidential nominee."

Some Republicans are daring to show some discomfort with Ryan's budget, despite the Gingrich example. Second-ranking Republican Lamar Alexander says he'll vote for the Ryan plan but prefers one offered by Sen. Pete Domenici with the help of former White House budget director Alice Rivlin. Susan Collins says she won't vote for Ryan's bill, and fellow Mainer Olympia Snowe is leaning against it. Scott Brown said he'd vote for the bill--and his staff scrambled to clarify that he'd merely vote "on" it. Kay Bailey Hutchinson says it'll be a "problem" if she can't vote to amend the Ryan budget, which is likely to be the case. Dick Lugar says he hasn't decided how to vote.

The New Republic's Jonathan Chait described the debate as "a worst-of-all-worlds situation for the GOP." Republican voters and officials took the Medicare plan seriously enough "that it's become an issue where Republican elected officials are going to have to hold the line upon pain of enraging the base. But at the same time, Republicans--including, from I can tell, Ryan--are panicking over the politics of the issue, and realizing they have handed Democrats a powerful weapon against them."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.