WASHINGTON -- As Rep. Paul D. Ryan readies the new GOP budget, House Republicans are debating whether to apply the party’s proposed Medicare changes a year earlier than planned, when Americans who are now 56 reach retirement age.
No decision has been made, and Ryan declined to address the internal debate Wednesday. The party’s earlier promise to keep Medicare unchanged for those 55 and older has bumped up against its vow to balance the budget in 10 years.
The Medicare overhaul for the next generation of seniors will be a centerpiece of Ryan’s budget -- and fodder for Democrats' criticism. Some Republicans indicated the party was more inclined to stick to its original plan rather than impose the new system sooner.
“Our goal is to get a down payment on this problem for America,” said Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman who was his party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee. “We need to prepare for the retirement of the baby boom of this country, to save these programs for not just the current retirees but for the next wave of retirees and the ones after that.”
Ryan’s budget, to be unveiled next week, is expected to be similar to those of past years, an austere blueprint that aims to dramatically reduce government outlays to stem the nation’s rising deficits and resulting debt. A conservative from the supply-side school of economics, Ryan is also expected to propose lowering tax rates for individuals and corporations to stimulate the economy.
Though the White House will almost certainly reject the blueprint, it will provide the opening salvo as Congress and the White House head toward the next pressure point in the budget battles. This summer, Washington will need to raise the debt ceiling again, reigniting President Obama’s calls for a grand bipartisan agreement on new taxes and spending cuts.
Ryan has spent the last several weeks in talks with rank-and-file Republicans who have different views on the best time to start the Medicare changes, which would provide a voucher-like payment that future seniors could apply toward the costs of private insurance or to enroll in traditional Medicare.
Some lawmakers feel compelled to stick with the original promise, which many of them campaigned on leading up to their reelection last fall, and not start the changes until those who are now under 55 become Medicare-eligible, at 65.
Others, though, say the more important pledge is to begin reforming Medicare to help improve the fiscal outlook, and they should pick up where they left off last year by applying the changes to those who are now 56 – arguing that another year has passed.
“Work in progress,” Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), vice chairman of the House Budget Committee, said Wednesday.
Changing the start date comes with political risks, and Democrats have been happy to pounce on the proposed shift as a retreat on a Republican campaign promise.
At the same time, the initial budget savings from changing the age threshold are modest. Experts say the greater Medicare savings could come in future years, as the voucher-style program shifts the growing healthcare costs away from the government.
House Republicans are more unified on the goal of bringing budgets into balance in 10 years.
“I wouldn’t expect big surprises from us next week,” Ryan said. “We’re making some additional modest changes to get to balance.”
Ryan had nearly closed the deficit hole in his past budget efforts, and did not have far to go.
His task was made easier by the new revenue coming from the New Year’s tax hikes, as well as the sequester cuts now slicing across the budget.
The savings from the new healthcare law also have figured into the improved budget outlook, Ryan said Wednesday.