Paul Ryan on pins and needles: How Obamacare could help kill his budget

Once upon a time, GOP could push his repeal-happy budget and not worry about it passing. Those days are gone now

Published April 2, 2014 11:45AM (EDT)

Paul Ryan                                       (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Paul Ryan (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Every spring for three years running, House Republicans have passed similar versions of the same budget, without ever arousing much doubt as to its viability within the GOP conference. Republican leaders have had to pull several key bills from the floor since 2011, but after a little wrangling the budget has always been a pretty sure thing.

That's not the case this year.

Republicans unveiled the latest iteration of their budget on Tuesday. It's not radically different from previous versions, but this time a cloud of uncertainty hangs over it. Which is not to say that it's going to fail on the House floor or be denied a vote. But this time party leaders are moving with haste to prevent the coalition that passed it just last year from falling apart.

To some extent, this is just a symptom of biennial election-year anxiety. Republicans in marginal districts don't want to complicate things with a risky vote, particularly given that Congress has already set budget top lines for the coming fiscal year. Conservatives also won't like it because it preserves the near-term spending agreement Paul Ryan struck with Senate Democrats late last year. But I don't think that entirely explains the budget's possible reversal of fortune.

After all, Republicans are already three-quarters pregnant with this plan. They're not going to get a pass from Democrats on the contents of past budgets if they decide to shelve this one. But even though the new budget isn't very different than the old ones, the surrounding circumstances have changed dramatically. The ground has shifted beneath Republicans in a direction that renders their policy consensus more politically dangerous than it was in 2011, 2012 or 2013.

Specifically, its familiar calls for immense cuts to domestic spending and the complete repeal of the Affordable Care Act carry much greater significance in 2014 than in prior years.

After equivocating for a year or so House Republicans ultimately disregarded endless exhortations from party leaders, conservative intellectuals and others calling upon them to adopt some significant new policy position, in order to break into demographic niches traditionally occupied by Democrats.

In lieu of making a grand substantive overture of some kind, the GOP has left its presidential hopefuls to make rhetorical entreaties to a variety of Democratic constituencies, including the poor and working class. One of those Republicans is Paul Ryan.

But his budget contains no new anti-poverty programs, or any of the innovative reforms he's promised, to make the social safety net more effective. Like all of his previous budgets, it instead calls for reducing federal spending on social programs for the poor to levels we haven't seen since before the Great Society, and devolving those programs to state governments, irrespective of their willingness or ability to finance them in perpetuity.

The most this budget has to offer the poor is the inclusion of dubious claims about the plan's impact on economic growth. To make the numbers add up, Ryan assumed a modest revenue bump in the out years. In the past, it stands to reason Ryan would have just cut poverty programs even more than usual. This time he uses dynamic scoring to will $74 billion of revenue into existence instead.

This is not the budget you want to vote for if you're trying to shake your plutocratic reputation or fight Democrats to a draw over economic inequality.

It's also not the budget you want to vote for if you're one of the few Republicans who's willing to acknowledge that Obamacare isn't a unidirectional force pulling Democrats into a political abyss.

As aggressively as Republicans have been politicking against Obamacare, you'll notice they haven't voted to repeal the whole thing outright in a very long time. Certainly not since the benefits kicked in on Jan. 1, and definitely not yesterday when we learned that the exchanges cleared 7.1 million enrollees over the past six months. The plan calls vaguely for repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, but doesn't include any real details about a GOP Obamacare alternative. Repealing Obamacare is a very tangible policy prescription at this point. Claiming to support replacing it means nothing.

I continue to doubt Republicans will ever vote for real legislation to repeal Obamacare again unless and until they agree on a consensus plan to replace it. They might be able to pull together the votes to do it in the context of a broad, non-binding budget blueprint. But if the GOP can't muster the votes for the Ryan plan this year, I think it'd be a mistake to assume the Affordable Care Act had nothing to do with it.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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