WASHINGTON -- The news from Thursday that House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was willing to make his proposal for privatizing Medicare optional was not really news at all.
While his budget creates a voucher system for Medicare -- giving seniors a check to purchase insurance through an established exchange -- Ryan has, in the past, expressed openness for allowing seniors to remain in the traditional fee-for-service system. So when he told the advocacy group No American Debt that he'd be comfortable with having "a fee-for-service option alongside premium support" on Thursday, it turned some heads but it wasn't inherently earth-shattering.
Conor Sweeney, a spokesman for the congressman, pointed out that Ryan told The Weekly Standard in April that he didn't "have a problem" with allowing those under 55 to remain on traditional Medicare should they choose to do so. While he's presented his budget as financial solace for an entitlement program going bankrupt, Ryan added that allowing the choices wouldn't necessarily mitigate its "budgetary effect."
Yet when Ryan offered a similar variation of that response on Thursday, Democrats accused him of running away from the budget he authored.
"Republicans are not fooling anyone," said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). "They voted to end Medicare and now they can’t take the heat. The only plan is called Medicare and we must strengthen it, not weaken it. What you’re hearing now is a lead balloon crashing to the ground."
It is a telling illustration of how politically advantageous Democrats believe Ryan's Medicare plan could be for them -- even as he tacks away from it, they refuse to acknowledge his flexibility. In reality, however, the aggrieved party here should be Ryan's fellow Republicans.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich took a near presidential campaign-ending amount of heat for suggesting that Ryan's proposal went too far and should be made optional. His rhetoric, of course, was part of the problem (Gingrich called it "radical" and "right-wing social engineering") but his principle is one that even Ryan himself has endorsed. And now, as one Republican operative complained to The Huffington Post, every GOP member in Congress is being forced to defend Ryan's plan even though he himself seems fine with it being a starting point -- not the end product -- of negotiations.
"Even Ryan seems to think that this was the beginning of a discussion," said the operative, who asked to remain nameless for fear of political retaliation. "It is pretty bizarre, maybe even suicidal, to take a brain storming idea and make it a litmus test."