Paul Ryan's Peculiar Definition of Bipartisanship

Paul Ryan at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Photograph by Luke Sharrett/The New York Times via Redux

In early 2011, Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was shopping around a Medicare plan, and he was in search of Democratic support. The previous year he’d released a proposal for privatizing Medicare that he had trouble selling to even his own party: Only 13 Republicans signed on. Clearly he needed to expand his base of support.

Ryan found a partner in Alice Rivlin. A former director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Clinton White House and a Washington Wise Woman, Rivlin was serving with Ryan on the Simpson-Bowles Commission that was looking for ways to bring the federal deficit and national debt under control. After an extended back and forth, the two came up with a proposal both could live with: Instead of getting rid of the fee-for-service model—Medicare as we know it, in which the government pays providers directly—and opening everything to the free market, Medicare would compete directly with private plans regulated by government exchanges. And rather than pegging the growth rate of Medicare to the Consumer Price Index, as Ryan had proposed, Ryan appeased Rivlin with a more generous cost cap.

Yet when Ryan released his first budget as chairman of the House Budget Committee that April, the outlines of the deal he and Rivlin worked out had been changed. (Ryan-Rivlin never officially got off the ground. Democrats on the Simpson-Bowles Commission refused to endorse it.) They’d agreed that private plans would compete with Medicare. But in Ryan’s budget, the option for seniors to stick with traditional fee-for-service Medicare had disappeared.

Democrats attacked the budget in ads featuring a man in a suit pushing an old woman off a cliff. In his defense, Ryan said the Medicare proposal was actually a bipartisan effort and pointed to his work with Rivlin. Announcing his budget at the Brookings Institution, where Rivlin is a senior fellow, he said Ryan-Rivlin was the basis of his plan. “Alice Rivlin and I designed these Medicare and Medicaid reforms,” Ryan said in an appearance on Morning Joe in April 2011. “Alice Rivlin was Clinton’s OMB director,” he said. “She’s a proud Democrat at the Brookings Institution. These entitlement reforms are based off of those models that she and I worked on together.”

Rivlin was not happy to see herself being held up as Ryan’s partner on a bill that bore little resemblance to their deal, especially since, right before he released the budget, Rivlin had told him she couldn’t support it. Rivlin came out publicly against the budget and denied Ryan’s claims that she was his co-author: “When I called him on out it, he softened the tone of his references to me,” Rivlin says. She isn’t upset with Ryan. “He genuinely wanted a bipartisan bill,” she says of his initial efforts. “I don’t think he was doing anything bad,” she adds. “He was pleased to have a Democratic partner.”

Something similar happened this week. In announcing his running mate, Mitt Romney praised Ryan as a man who works “across the aisle.” As an example of Ryan’s bipartisanship, Romney offered up Ryan’s relationship with Senator Ron Wyden, a liberal Democrat from Oregon.

After Rivlin-Ryan failed, Ryan continued to look for Democrats who would support his plan. Eventually he found Wyden, who has a reputation of teaming up with Republicans on ambitious legislation. In December 2011, they worked together on a blueprint for reforming Medicare. Ryan-Wyden wasn’t a bill, but a white paper—a set of principles the two men endorsed.

But what ultimately came out months later in Ryan’s next budget didn’t look to Wyden like what he’d signed on for. In the 2012 budget, Ryan agreed to keep traditional Medicare as an option. In the white paper, Ryan had agreed to Wyden’s demand that if Medicare costs exceeded an agreed-upon cap, the costs would be covered by insurance providers—not beneficiaries. Ryan’s budget cut the cap in half—and lost the guarantee. Wyden made his opposition known: He voted against the budget (which also repealed the Affordable Care Act entirely), which he argued shifted costs onto the most vulnerable, and let Ryan know that the new budget was not the same as Ryan-Wyden.

Brendan Buck, a Romney spokesman, says in an e-mail exchange that the differences between his plan with Ryan and Wyden’s, were “negligible.” Wyden didn’t think so: The senator, who typically avoids divisive comments, accused Romney of “talking nonsense” about his work with Ryan.

Asked for other examples of Ryan’s bipartisanship, Buck brought up … Rivlin. Just because she didn’t ultimately support Ryan’s Medicare plan, he says, “doesn’t mean he hasn’t worked in a bipartisan manner to find solutions to our debt crisis.”

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