Spartanburg Herald-Journal, Alex Hicks Jr., Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Republicans are pressing ahead with one of the most ambitious and risky long-term spending agendas in memory, yet the dozen or so potential White House hopefuls are nearly invisible on the issue.
They can't stay on the sidelines for long, however. The contentious debate will rope them in on terms they might find hard to control.
The triumph of tea party candidates in 2010 pumped new urgency into a long-brewing Republican Party push for major cuts in domestic and benefit programs, including Medicare and Social Security.
In the absence of a Republican president or clear-cut party leader, a little-known congressman from Wisconsin seized the initiative. Backed by most House Republicans, Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, wrote a far-reaching spending plan that right away framed the debate on Capitol Hill.
His proposal for the budget year that begins Oct. 1 calls for cutting spending by $5.8 trillion over 10 years. Ryan, R-Wis., would reduce tax rates for corporations and the wealthy, and eliminate various tax loopholes.
The blueprint aims to convert Medicare, the health insurance program for older people, into a subsidy or voucher program. Many probably would pay more for medical services.
Medicaid, which helps the poor and disabled, would become a state-run block grant program, a shift that would reduce federal spending by billions of dollars.
Democrats quickly pounced.
"It doesn't reform Medicare. It deforms and dismantles it," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. As for Medicaid, he said, the budget "rips apart the safety net" for the poor and elderly.
Expect similar criticisms in 2012 the presidential contest, which is why Republican contenders must approach Ryan's plan with caution.
Ryan's proposal for 2012 and beyond is unrelated to Congress's testy battle over the current year's budget fight, which nearly led to a government shutdown at the end of this past week.
Attention now turns to Ryan's plan and the fate of taxes, spending and the social safety net over the long term.
"Paul Ryan is going to define modern conservatism at a serious level," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on the radio show hosted by Bill Bennett, President Ronald Reagan's education secretary. "The general shape of what he's doing will define 2012 for Republicans."
Gingrich, who headed an ill-fated congressional bid to revamp Medicare in 1995, is preparing for a presidential run.
Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who managed Bob Dole's 1996 GOP presidential campaign, said Ryan's budget proposal "will drive the debate through the nominating process and into much of the general election." He said Ryan "has filled this huge policy void in the party with this very bold set of ideas."
Presidential contenders usually like to be the ones proposing bold solutions to pressing problems, even if it's Congress's job to pass budget bills. But Ryan has stolen that thunder, much as Republican governors in Wisconsin, New Jersey and Ohio have overshadowed the presidential field in the GOP campaign against government labor unions.
For now, the potential presidential candidates are keeping a low profile on the issue. Several have offered vague praise for Ryan, leaving themselves room to maneuver.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney applauded Ryan "for recognizing the looming financial crisis that faces our nation and for the creative and bold thinking that he brings to the debate."
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