Score another victory for the Tea Party.
As of Monday early afternoon, House Republicans were officially undecided as to whether they’d take on entitlements when they write the budget this year. Fiscal-hawk extraordinaire Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, danced around the issue in a meeting with reporters. After trashing Obama’s budget for its failure to include entitlement reform, Ryan refused to say whether he’d include it in his own. Little did he know that just as he was reluctantly deflecting the question, House majority leader Eric Cantor was dropping a bombshell in a pen-and-pad briefing with reporters elsewhere in the Capitol: Republicans, Cantor said, are all-in on entitlement reform.
The fast-moving decision is yet another sign of how fundamentally the GOP freshmen have changed the calculus on Capitol Hill. House aides tell NRO that after an internal flare-up with freshmen Republicans over spending levels for the remainder of this fiscal year — where the leadership ultimately sided with the freshmen to push to cut $100 billion — GOP leaders wanted to get ahead of President Obama on the budget issue.
The intention to push on entitlements is also a vindication of the vision of Paul Ryan, the once-embattled voice in the wilderness whose determination to reform entitlements has now been embraced fully by his leadership and his fellow House Republicans. Sources say Ryan was “thrilled” when he heard about Cantor’s remarks.
For many GOP freshmen, the decision reflects an urgency to seriously address the national-debt crisis, and an effort to make good on promises to the voters who elected them. “This is about leadership,” says Rep. Allen West (R., Fla.), a vocal member of the freshman class. “If we don’t deal with entitlements, then we are not serious. I am glad to see our leadership stepping up to the plate. They’re not backing away from the 99-miles-an-hour fastball. This really is about courage.”
Freshman representative Scott Tipton (R., Colo.) tells NRO that his class was itching to take on entitlements. But the fervor for bold policy, he says, is relatively recent. Once freshmen settled into office, many of them took hard looks at the budget. In order to get ahead of the Democrats, both fiscally and politically, his class wants to be the one to frame the debate, he says.
This year’s freshman class did not campaign aggressively on entitlement reform. Many of them did, however, campaign on a fierce commitment to balancing the federal budget, meaning they would never support a Republican budget that looked anything like the one proposed by the White House, which, an aide tells NRO, meant entitlements would have to be addressed.
The decision to move forward on entitlement reform wasn’t a direct reaction to the recent “revolt” over the $100 billion in spending cuts, but that fight was certainly on everyone’s mind. “The hundred-billion issue was a good reminder that putting forward a budget that fails to balance, ever, and does nothing to address the central challenges, did not have a chance in hell,” says one House aide. Of the freshmen, he adds, “These guys are serious, they don’t mess around.”
A senior GOP House aide tells NRO that the leadership is willing to move now on entitlements because the “will is there” in the conference. “We have the 218 votes needed to support entitlement reform,” he tells us. “While raising it now provides an important contrast, to be sure, we would not be bringing it up if we did not have the votes. We know the conference will back it if it’s included in the budget. The leadership knows they have to lead and there is no one better than Paul Ryan to take charge. The sense in the conference is, ‘let’s be serious.’”
The backdrop to all this was the failure of President Obama’s budget to address entitlements. “It’s not any surprise that we’d deal with entitlements in our budget,” says another leadership aide. “But it made sense to get out a little earlier to just add credibility to our criticisms of the president. It had to be said for the mainstream media to see how the president punted here. We wanted to make the clearest contrast.”
“With the president abdicating, we’ll take the mantle,” says another aide, in a frequent refrain. “This isn’t a schoolyard, this isn’t recess, this isn’t the Illinois Senate; this game of chicken is irresponsible.” If Republicans had taken a pass, it would have been blatant, the aide says: “There’s nowhere to hide in a budget. You either do it or you don’t.”
At a press conference on Tuesday, the president appeared to change his tune, however slightly. He said entitlement spending would need to be addressed at some point, and suggested that both parties could work together to forge a compromise similar to the tax deal brokered during the lame-duck session last year. “Nobody is more mindful than me that entitlements are going to be a key part of this issue,” he said. “This is not a matter of ‘you go first’ or ‘I go first’; this a matter of everybody having a conversation about where we want to go and then ultimately getting into that boat at the same time.”
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R., Texas), the chairman of the conference, doesn’t buy it. “Why isn’t it in his budget?” he asks. “[Obama] has to lead, but so far, he has refused to, and I still believe that is their position. But if he has changed his mind, I’m thrilled.” Either way, Republicans are fully prepared to go it alone. “As far as active participation from [Obama], I don’t see it,” a GOP aide tells NRO. “‘Win the future’ is a campaign slogan. He’s in campaign mode; he’s playing rope-a-dope.”
Some aides downplay the decision as inevitable. “Everyone knows,” a leadership aide says, “Ryan is serious about this. Boehner and Cantor are serious about this.” Plus, these aides note, many House Republicans are already on the record in support of Ryan’s alternative budget two years ago, which was different from the ‘Roadmap’ but did include aspects of entitlement reforms. So the foundation for a push on entitlements has been in place for some time.
But now that they have power, the circumstances are different, and the stakes much higher. How exactly to take on entitlements is still being worked out. One challenge is that many reforms, if applied only to those 55 or younger, don’t save anything very soon.
“We’re going to keep looking at it from 30,000 feet for a few weeks,” says an aide familiar with the budget process. “We’ve got to do it smart, do it gradually.” The freshmen have already pushed their conference to be bold — now comes the hard part. “These guys need to do their homework.”
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review. Andrew Stiles is a 2011 Franklin fellow.