— Braced for a possible political backlash, House Republicans charged forward with their plan to slash deficit spending by scaling back Medicaid and overhauling Medicare while still cutting taxes, putting themselves on a collision course with President Obama and Democrats.
All but four Republicans voted Friday to support the 2012 budget resolution crafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). No Democrats supported the plan, which passed on a 235-193 vote.
Republicans maintain that the plan will cut $5.8 trillion in spending over the next decade and balance the budget in 2030. It cuts taxes on the top income earners and businesses — from 35% to 25% — while closing unspecified loopholes and tax exemptions.
"This budget keeps America exceptional," Ryan said on the House floor before the vote. "It preserves its promise to the next generation."
Democrats cast the Republican vote as an attempt to dismantle the country's social safety net, even as the rich receive tax cuts.
Republicans know the political risks, especially in swing districts and states, since all recent efforts to drastically restructure benefit programs have bombed with voters.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said House GOP leaders were sending their rank-and-file members to slaughter. "I want to say to my Republican colleagues: Do you realize that your leadership is asking you to cast a vote today to abolish Medicare as we know it?" she asked.
As GOP lawmakers left Washington for a two-week break, House leaders armed members with charts and talking points aimed at refuting Democrats' criticism and winning over constituents. A kit for members outlined a day-by-day plan for focusing comments on Republicans' plans to add jobs, deregulate business and cut taxes.
While certain to die in the Democratic-controlled Senate, House approval of Ryan's plan puts Republicans squarely on the record in favor of an approach to deficit reduction markedly different from an outline offered by President Obama on Wednesday.
The president advocates raising $1 trillion through taxes on the wealthy, cutting spending by $2 trillion, and saving $1 trillion in debt interest, thus reducing borrowing by $4 trillion over 12 years. Obama contends that on balance, his plan would cut the deficit more than the GOP proposal as a result of the tax increases.
The Ryan budget blueprint would cut federal spending on Medicaid, which provides healthcare for seniors, children and the poor, and would begin distributing money to states by block grant.
The plan would do away with Medicare's direct payment for healthcare for seniors, replacing it with a voucher system in which seniors choose between private insurers. The Congressional Budget Office found that part of the plan, which takes effect in 2022, could nearly double out-of-pocket costs for seniors.
Republicans argued Friday that Americans are willing to accept diminished social programs in return for a firmer fiscal standing.
"They understand in my district: We're broke. If we don't deal with this, we lose the social safety net," said Rep. Tim Walberg, a Republican from a southern Michigan district that voted for Obama. "I think they're ready."
Polls show a much less certain picture. Americans appear to have a significant appetite for deficit reduction, but their appetites shrink as they get into details, particularly those involving changes to Medicare.
Republicans emphasized that the Ryan budget would not affect current Medicare recipients or people 55 or older — grandfathering in a group of reliable voters who turned against President George W. Bush's 2005 attempt to enact a voucher program for Social Security.
They argued they had no choice but to restructure Medicare and Medicaid, whose skyrocketing costs are major drivers of the growing debt.
Yet, even as the Republican rank-and-file voted for the bill, some kept their distance from the details.
"It's a politically bold move, there's no doubt about it," said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). "I'm not going to say I endorse every piece of it. I'm voting for it as a road map."
Four other budget proposals — three offered by Democrats and one from the conservative GOP faction — went down in defeat on Friday.
The Ryan resolution will serve as a blueprint for GOP-chaired House committees as they set out writing the actual budget legislation.
It also bolstered the position of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) for the next budget fight: raising the limit on the $14.2-trillion national debt.
Boehner needed the lift after losing scores of Republican votes on Thursday's compromise plan to fund the government through the 2011 budget year, which ends Sept. 30. The struggle over the 2011 budget exposed deep divisions within the GOP, as conservatives demanded deeper cuts than GOP leaders could negotiate.
Minutes before the 2012 budget passed, Boehner reaffirmed his hard-line stance on the debt limit, promising a struggle with Obama.
"Now let me be clear: There will be no debt-limit increase unless it's accompanied by serious spending cuts and real budget reforms," he said.
Rehberg, a Senate candidate, said he found things he liked in the bill but believed there were one "too many unanswered questions with regard to Medicare reform, and I simply won't support any plan until I know for a fact that Montana's seniors will be protected."