WASHINGTON — House Republicans this week are planning to propose a steep reduction of more than $4 trillion in federal spending over the next decade by reshaping popular programs like Medicare, the party's budget chairman said Sunday, opening a new front in the intensifying budget wars.
Appearing on the television program "Fox News Sunday," Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who heads the budget panel, also said Republicans would call for strict caps on all government spending that would require cuts to take effect whenever Congress exceeds its limit.
"We are going to put out a plan that gets our debt on downward trajectory and gets us to a point of giving our next generation a debt-free nation," Ryan said, even as he predicted that the politically charged initiatives he intends to lay out in the 2012 budget beginning Tuesday would give Democrats a "political weapon to go against us. But they will have to lie and demagogue to make that a political weapon."
Ryan's comments came as Republicans and Democrats remained divided over how to reach an agreement that would avert a government shutdown as early as Saturday, when a budget bill now financing the government is set to expire.
While Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, said progress toward a resolution was being made, neither he nor other top lawmakers could guarantee that government agencies would be able to stay open after Friday.
Schumer said Democrats were urging Republicans to consider adding some automatic annual spending in agriculture, treasury and justice programs to the pot to reach a target of about $33 billion in cuts rather than insisting that all spending reductions come out of what is known in budget parlance as discretionary accounts.
"If you just cut from domestic discretionary, you'll have to cut things like helping students go to college, you'll have to cut scientific research, including cancer research," Schumer said on the ABC program "This Week." ''These things have created millions of jobs through the years."
Another potential source of savings being eyed by Democrats is $3 billion in unspent transportation funds. Republicans have resisted including such reductions as a central element of the package of spending cuts, calling them an accounting gimmick.
"We want real spending cuts," House Speaker John Boehner told reporters on Friday. "We are dealing with the discretionary part of the budget."
Despite continued jockeying in public, some lawmakers suggested a shutdown could be avoided given that both parties have said they did not want government services to be interrupted.
"I think we'll get together," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on the CBS program "Face the Nation."
Appearing on the same program, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader, seemed to draw a line against Republican attempts to cut programs like Planned Parenthood or education initiatives for young children.
"It's a question of how we do it," Reid said about the cuts. "We can't do it on Head Start. We can't do it at the program for little kids. We can't do it on homeless veterans."
While the fight over a plan to finance the government through Sept. 30 could have immediate consequences with a deadline looming just days away, the conflict over the emerging Republican budget proposal for next year suggested a continued clash over fundamental questions of how the federal government delivers services.
Recognizing the political risk of moving forward with significant changes in Medicare as well as Medicaid, the health care program for poor Americans, Ryan emphasized that spending on those programs would continue to rise under the Republican budget plan, just not as sharply as it would otherwise.
He also sought to clarify that any changes in Medicare, which would include requiring more affluent Americans to pay a larger share of their own Medicare costs, would not amount to a so-called voucher program — an approach that has been heavily criticized by Democrats in the past.
In the interview on the Fox program, Ryan said his plan was more equivalent to Medicare's prescription drug program and would allow Medicare patients to pick from a menu of insurance plans. The federal government would direct the subsidy to the plan, not the consumer.
"It doesn't go to the person, into the marketplace," Ryan said. "It goes to the plan. More for the poor, more for people who get sick, and we don't give as much money to people who are wealthy."
Americans who are now 55 or older would go into the current program to prevent a sudden change in their health insurance coverage, he said.
Democrats quickly took aim at Ryan's proposals, saying Republicans were trying to shrink the deficit at the expense of people who need government aid rather than wealthy business interests allied with Republicans.
"Paul Ryan made clear that the Republican budget will protect big oil companies' subsidies over seniors' health care," said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "It's already becoming clear who will be the priority in the House Republican budget — special interests, not middle class families."
The Ryan budget is not binding but serves as a manifesto and a set of instructions for the other committees in the House to follow in assembling legislation to implement the new policies. It would have to be reconciled with a budget in the Democratic-controlled Senate, where a bipartisan group of lawmakers had been quietly working on its own plans for long-term reductions in the federal deficit and debt.