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Ron Wyden, Paul Ryan Could Form A Fiscal Partnership Liberals Fear

01/04/2014 09:37 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014
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WASHINGTON -- House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and soon-to-be Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) have worked together before, and progressives are worried they might do it again -- to the detriment of the social safety net.

Wyden is taking over from Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), whose leadership of the influential Finance Committee often rankled liberals, who thought he was too protective of big banks and financial interests and had weakened President Barack Obama's health care reform. While progressives hail Wyden's stances on civil liberties, they worry he may be more like Baucus in his support for entitlement and tax reform than someone like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) or even Wyden's junior colleague from Oregon, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D).

"It's Whac-A-Mole centrist," said Neil Sroka, communications director for the left-leaning Democracy for America. "You get rid of Baucus, a guy who almost single-handedly derailed health reform, and now you get Wyden."

"With Wyden, there's no reason to believe, especially with trade and some other issues, that he'll be better than Baucus," Sroka added.

The lefties' concern is heightened by Wyden's past work with Ryan, with whom he once crafted a discussion document on cutting Medicare costs that included an option to add a voucher-like program. During the 2012 presidential campaign, GOP vice presidential nominee Ryan and running mate Mitt Romney cited that work. Wyden had to step back a bit, noting that it was for discussion purposes, not his formal proposal.

Still, the precedent of Wyden's working on a plan that would be anathema to liberals is there. Ryan could further raise the odds of such collaborations next year, when he is the odds-on favorite to replace Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which is the counterpart to the Senate Finance Committee.

Indeed, Ryan, who is already engaged in crafting tax reform as a senior member of Ways and Means, said in a statement to The Huffington Post that he saw no reason why Wyden and Camp shouldn't get started right away, before his own possible ascent to the chairmanship in 2015. And Ryan, fresh off a budget deal with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) that many liberals did not like, is in a mood to keep such progress going. He would certainly be a partner in pushing for tax reform in the vein of a plan Wyden has already offered with Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.).

"Tax reform will help grow the economy and create jobs, and there’s no reason to wait. I want to help Chairman Camp and my colleagues finish the job this year," Ryan said. "And Chairman Camp will have a strong partner in Sen. Wyden. He understands that true bipartisanship builds on the best ideas from both parties. I am hoping to vote for the Camp-Wyden Tax Reform Act of 2014. It will help put people back to work."

The promise of bipartisanship is surely refreshing for liberals, centrists and conservatives alike. But progressives fear Wyden might compromise simply for the sake of compromise, starting from too weak a position and not cutting the best deal.

"He just has a strange understanding of what bipartisanship means that's sort of D.C.-centric, where if we just split the difference, we'll find a way to get along," Sroka said. "The fact of the matter is that he thought a plan that leaned toward voucherized Medicare was a good compromise, and I'm afraid of what he might think is a good compromise on tax reform."

As Ryan signaled in his statement, tax reform would likely come up before any new Medicare proposals. "I would say that some concern is certainly warranted," said Dean Baker, co-founder of the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research.

"On the Medicare side, my guess is that with the [Affordable Care Act] just kicking in, no one will be that anxious to jump into Medicare reform until they see how it works," Baker said.

"The tax story is where we are more likely to see movement," he added. "This doesn't have to be bad. The tax code, especially on the corporate side, is a cesspool. People like Romney get rich by taking advantage of loopholes in the system. If you can close these loopholes, it would definitely be worth giving up something on the rate side."

Baker was referring to lowering tax rates, which Wyden's plan would do, along with closing some loopholes and simplifying tax brackets to pay for the cut.

The fear on the left, however, is that if Wyden takes something like his compromise plan as a starting point, the end result will be something even further to the right, setting tax policies for the next several decades that don't raise enough money to support domestic programs and cut the deficit.

"I don't see tax reform as necessarily bad," Baker said. "Of course, if the Ryan types get their way, they will leave in most of the loopholes and just have big cuts in rates."

That might actually leave liberals pining for Baucus.

Wyden's office referred HuffPost to a statement he made when Baucus was nominated last month to be ambassador to China, which included a summary of the issues Wyden hopes to address.

"The Senate Finance Committee has many important responsibilities which include promoting job creation, ensuring competitiveness and stabilizing the nation’s fiscal health," Wyden said. "I also look forward to continuing my work on preserving the Medicare guarantee and protecting retirement security, updating the nation’s tax system with a focus on growth, fairness and efficiency, and ensuring that fiscal policy supports keeping jobs here in America."

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

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