Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., on Thursday predicted a long partisan battle ahead on the federal budget deficit, accusing Democrats of ignoring the problem and stressing that it could be a defining issue in the 2012 elections.
At a breakfast hosted by Politico’s Playbook, the chairman of the House Budget Committee advocated sweeping reforms to social programs like Medicare and Social Security, but said that he was not optimistic about Congress’ ability to address the deficit. He said most Democrats were unwilling to compromise, citing positions like those of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. On Wednesday, Reid said to MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell of Social Security, “I’m not willing to take a look at it right now” – a statement that Ryan referred to as “mind-boggling.” Ryan said that if Democrats do not partner with the GOP to cut spending to entitlement programs, Republicans will “give the country a choice in 2012,” by making the deficit a key part of their campaign platform.
Ryan said that reform is also constrained by the White House, which he said he believes is “punting” on the government’s debt. He said that though he could not comment on the sincerity of the president’s desire to address the deficit, Mr. Obama’s actions indicated that he is not willing to engage on reforms. Though he would not discuss private conversations with the White House, Ryan said that he has offered to meet with the president to discuss the budget, but that the White House has not responded. The last time the two talked, according to Ryan, was when Obama called to congratulate the congressman after the midterm elections in November.
Concerned Republicans may have not garnered much comfort from Ryan’s comments, in which he candidly acknowledged that focusing on cuts to programs like Social Security and Medicare will be difficult for his party: “everybody knows that we’re walking into a political trap that, arguably, we’re setting for ourselves.” He blamed the trap on partisan discourse, saying that Democrats will use “political demagoguery” to sideline anyone who tries to reform social programs. Though he agreed that cutting those programs will be unpopular, Ryan largely downplayed his colleagues’ worries, saying that “it is our job to try and change the polls.”
Ryan also placed the responsibility on members of Congress to improve the debate surrounding the budget deficit and to find the “ever-escaping adult conversation.” He urged members of his party to educate their constituents about the main contributors to the deficit, which he said do not include current targets like foreign aid and National Public Radio. That statement came as a contrast to the positions of many House Republicans, who voted to cut spending to NPR later on Thursday.