From the moment Mitt Romney announced Paul Ryan as his running mate, the campaign has held up the Wisconsin congressman as a leader who excels at bipartisanship. Romney and his surrogates have repeatedly said Ryan “reached across the aisle” to fashion his Medicare reform plan devised with liberal Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, “a well-established Democrat,” in the words of Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).
The bipartisanship argument is one voters have heard for years. The Romney campaign seems to be betting it’ll have particular appeal in an election year when congressional approval ratings are at record lows. There’s only one problem: The assertions don’t track with the lawmaker’s 13-year congressional career.
On paper, Ryan appears to be slightly more bipartisan than some of his colleagues, according to GovTrack. us, which tracks congressional voting records. Of the 975 bills he has co-sponsored, 22 percent were introduced by Democrats—a statistic the campaign has highlighted. Yet most of these weren’t instances of compromise so much as examples of Ryan getting behind issues that had broad support among both parties—such as sanctions against Iran—or were relatively minor, like changing the timetable for excise taxes paid by manufacturers of firearms.
On the big issues, Ryan is known to make overtures to the other party—and then renege. Back in 2010, Ryan released a proposal for privatizing Medicare that he had trouble selling to even his own party: Only 13 House Republicans signed on. Clearly he needed to expand his base of support. So in early 2011, Ryan shopped around his Medicare plan in search of a Democrat who would get behind it.
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. After an extended back and forth, the two came up with a Medicare 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, the government health-care program would compete directly with private plans regulated by government exchanges. And rather than pegging the growth rate of Medicare spending to the Consumer Price Index, as Ryan had proposed, the Wisconsin lawmaker appeased Rivlin with a more generous cost cap.
Yet when Ryan released his first budget as chairman of the House Budget Committee that April—with the full backing of his party—he abandoned his compromise with Rivlin and ditched the agreed-upon option for seniors to stick with traditional fee-for-service Medicare.
Democrats attacked Ryan for attempting to dismantle the program, running ads that featured a man in a suit pushing an old woman off a cliff. Ryan defended himself by noting that the Medicare proposal was actually a bipartisan effort. Rivlin is “a proud Democrat at the Brookings Institution,” Ryan said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe at the time. “These entitlement reforms are based off of those models that she and I worked on together.”
Rivlin wasn’t happy. When Ryan released the budget, she told him she couldn’t support it and came out against it publicly: “When I called him out on it, he softened the tone of his references to me,” she says. Rivlin 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.”
Ryan continued to look for lawmakers from the other party who would support his plan. Eventually he found Wyden, who has a reputation for teaming up with Republicans on ambitious legislation. In December 2011, they worked together on a Medicare reform blueprint. The result wasn’t a bill but a set of principles the two men endorsed. What appeared months later in Ryan’s next budget wasn’t recognizable to Wyden.
Between his 2011 and 2012 budgets, Ryan had made one big shift: He’d agreed to keep traditional Medicare as an option. But in the white paper, Ryan had accepted 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 instead cut the cap in half—and effectively shed the guarantee that no beneficiary would have to reach into his own pocket.
Wyden made his opposition known: Arguing that the proposal shifted costs onto the most vulnerable, he voted against it in May and let Ryan know that it was not the same as Ryan-Wyden. Nonetheless, the Romney campaign has been touting Ryan-Wyden—and calling it the basis for Romney’s own Medicare plan. Brendan Buck, a Romney spokesman, said in an e-mail that the differences between Romney’s proposal and Ryan-Wyden are “negligible.” Wyden balks at that characterization: In a recent statement, the senator, who typically avoids divisive comments, accused Romney of “talking nonsense.”
Asked for other examples of Ryan’s bipartisanship, Buck brings up … Rivlin. Just because she didn’t ultimately support Ryan’s Medicare plan, Buck says, “doesn’t mean he hasn’t worked in a bipartisan manner to find solutions to our debt crisis.” The campaign also touts Ryan’s work this year with Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. When Ryan took over as chair, the men went out to dinner and talked, in Van Hollen’s words, “about family and politics.” Since then, Ryan’s caucus has shot down all 23 budget amendments that Democrats on the committee have proposed. “It’s important,” says Van Hollen, “not to mistake civility with a willingness to compromise.”