First-term Representative Bobby Schilling is getting ready for some uncomfortable conversations.
The pizzeria owner-turned-Republican lawmaker supported his party’s 2012 budget plan that passed in the House last week, a proposal that cuts more than $6 trillion in federal spending over 10 years, privatizes Medicare and caps Medicaid.
Now, with Congress adjourned for a two-week recess, he’s heading home to his Illinois district abutting the Mississippi River armed with charts, talking points and a thick skin.
“Social Security, Medicare, they’re gonna all be somewhat tough,” said Schilling. “But I’m just somebody who gets up there and I just let them start yelling.”
The budget fight spotlights the political risk confronting Republicans as Washington intensifies its focus on the long-term government deficits that will shape the country’s economic future and frame next year’s elections.
How Republican leaders balance the expectations of Tea Party activists, who’ve pushed for cuts in popular programs including entitlements, with the need to protect vulnerable members in swing districts will define the party in the 2012 elections.
“This is a defining moment for this generation, that this Congress has the courage to go forward and reform a very difficult issue such as Medicare,” said first-term Republican Representative Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania. “We’re doing it even at risk of our own political future.”
Debt Limit Fight
A looming conflict over raising the limit on the national debt will test the savvy of Republican leaders. They’ve said they won’t back increasing the debt ceiling unless Obama agrees to more specific steps to trim the budget deficit, estimated to top $1.6 trillion this year.
Obama and other Democrats have cautioned against political brinkmanship in dealing with the debt limit. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said yesterday that Republican leaders have privately assured the Obama administration that Congress will raise the borrowing limit in time to prevent a default on the country’s debt.
“If you allow people to start to doubt whether the United States of America will meet its obligations, that would be catastrophic,” he said on NBC’s “Meet The Press” program. “The responsible people up there understand this.”
Tea Party Opposition
Still, many Tea Party-backed Republicans have voiced opposition to upping the limit, making them prone to reject almost any compromise their leadership negotiates with the White House.
“Leadership is going to have to do a lot of work to convince the freshman class it’s a good vote,” said Republican Representative Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican and one of the party’s 87 newcomers in the House. “Every time they say it’s a must-pass bill, that’s the ones you want to look at really closely.”
Huelskamp and other fiscal conservatives see the 2012 budget plan that the House approved April 13 -- with no Democratic votes -- as a key step toward living up to the promises that fueled Tea Party support for Republicans in the 2010 election.
The budget crafted by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, would slash U.S. spending by $6.2 trillion over a decade by cutting Medicare and scores of other programs including Medicaid, food stamps, farm subsidies and Pell college tuition grants. His plan would replace Medicare by providing those under the age of 55 with subsidies to buy private health insurance.
Democrats see Ryan’s plan as a cornerstone of their 2012 campaign strategy. During the two-week congressional recess the party plans to use its specifics to target vulnerable Republicans, such as Schilling, said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel of New York.
“We’re going to hold every single Republican accountable for choosing to protect the special interests and turning their back on America’s senior citizens by terminating their Medicare benefit,” he said in an April 15 interview on ABC’s “Top Line” webcast.
House Speaker John Boehner said Republican lawmakers should tackle head-on the Medicare issue during the recess. “It’s important for our members to go home and talk about the crisis that we face” in the program’s funding, the Ohio Republican told reporters on April 15. Focusing on the exemption for those 55 and older upon the Medicare provisions taking effect, Boehner said, “the changes being proposed would not affect one senior citizen in America, not one.”
Before the House vote, Republican leaders circulated a package of charts, talking points and fact sheets supporting the budget to members, including links to a document countering the main attacks on the plan.
The document encourages lawmakers to highlight how the budget “saves Medicare,” and offers “future beneficiaries access to the same kinds of health-care options now enjoyed by members of Congress.”
Expanding entitlement programs, such as Medicare, pose the biggest threat to the government’s long-term fiscal standing, according to the Congressional Budget Office. While voters say they want politicians to tame the deficit, surveys show they don’t want to significantly alter entitlement programs. In a March 4-7 Bloomberg National Poll, more than three-quarters of those surveyed opposed any reduction in Medicare benefits.
Representative Jo Ann Emerson, a co-leader of a group of Republican moderates known as the Tuesday Group, said her party faces a “balancing act” as the fiscal debate evolves.
One challenge will be dealing with outsized expectations of what Republicans in the House can accomplish, said Emerson, of Missouri. “It looks like it should be so much easier just to make substantial cuts” to some voters, she said.
Equally challenging, she said, will be the task of defending vulnerable first-term Republicans in districts where Democrats attacks are most likely to resonate. “The most important thing is for us to protect the freshmen in these tough seats,” she said.
For Schilling, whose district Obama carried with 57% of the vote in 2008, that means translating the party’s budget message in a way that voters understand.
“That’s where our charts come in,” he said before last week’s vote on the Ryan budget. “That’s what I’ll be working on when I get home, finishing my charts off.”
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