Hypocritical Paul Ryan Plan Doesn't Close Path to Big Budget Deal

National Journal

Paul Ryan's 10-year budget plan is hypocritical and unattainable. It's fresh evidence that the White House and congressional Republicans are no closer to seriously addressing the nation's debt crisis than they were before President Obama broke out the steaks and Merlot.

In interviews today, White House and GOP congressional aides articulated credible paths to a so-called grand bargain on debt reduction.  But they seem to have little hope of getting there.

"It ain't happening," said a senior GOP aide on Capitol Hill. He blamed Democrats' refusal to offer spending cuts and entitlement reforms large enough to give GOP lawmakers the political cover they need to raise taxes beyond the $600 billion hike in 2012.

"The odds are very high that it doesn't get done," said a senior White House official. He blamed Republicans for refusing to raise taxes enough to give Obama the political cover he needs to trim entitlements.

See the problem here? Both sides need each other "“ and neither side trusts the other.

It doesn't help when Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, opens up the bidding with what Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank rightly called, "black-box budgeting -- an expression of lofty aims with binders full of magic asterisks in lieu of special cuts to government benefits."

First, the Ryan budget would retain the $716 billion cut to Medicare that was part of Obama's health care overhaul. Yes, that's same $716 billion cut Ryan pledged to eliminate as the GOP's vice presidential candidate. And, in a rare double flip-flop, Ryan counted on the same Medicare savings in his past budgets.

Second, his sleight-of-hand budget would perpetuate the onerous "sequester" cuts to domestic programs that Republicans condemn. Finally, his math doesn't add up unless the Affordable Care Act is abolished, which Ryan knows will not happen while Obama is in office.

Yesterday, I asked whether Obama's new approach to Congress is an act of humility or cynicism. The answer isn't yet clear. With Ryan, it is: His budget is phony. Enter the Senate Democrats who respond today with a plan they know Republicans won't accept. It would raise taxes by nearly $1 trillion over the next decade and spend nearly $100 billion on a jobs package.

Lori Montgomery of The Washington Post reports that both sides are "drafting radically different budget blueprints" with little middle ground. Her story quoted Robert Bixby, executive director of the bipartisan Concord Coalition: "They're opening bids. But they're opening bids from three years ago."

Against this depressing backdrop, I asked advisers to Obama and the House GOP to describe the most likely path to a deal.  Their answers were revealing.

White House aides: The president keeps the channels of communication open to GOP lawmakers, a process that began over a high-cholesterol dinner last week. House and Senate pass disparate budgets and send them to a conference committee. A bipartisan group of senators, including those bending Obama's ear, strike a deal. The Senate approves it, putting enormous pressure on the GOP-controlled House. That pressure is, effectively, political cover: Enough Republicans feel safe enough to cross party lines and join Democrats on a deal.

GOP House aides: This week's opening bids from Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Patty Murray are strategically distasteful. Obama offers a budget in April that hints at serious entitlement reform. The president's approval ratings continue to drop, putting pressure on Democrats to cut spending deeper than they would like, in order to protect the rest of the White House agenda. That allows a small but significant number of GOP lawmakers to back new taxes couched as reform.

The good news is that top GOP aides, when promised anonymity, are willing to talk about raising taxes a second time (they would spin it as broader tax reform) -- but only if Democrats move much further on spending cuts and entitlements.

The bad news is that, at least for now, neither side believes that the other is willing to compromise. They don't trust each other. They don't understand each other. Until recently, they didn't even talk to each other.

Laugh all you want at the steaks-and-Merlot campaign. It can't hurt.