WASHINGTON — Freshman Republican Rep. Joe Heck sees no reason to back down after voting for a Republican budget plan that combines deep spending cuts in safety-net programs for the poor with a dramatic overhaul of Medicare and steep drops in tax rates.
The blueprint "is not perfect, but it's something that is on the table to start moving forward and say, 'Look, we face serious challenges, not just today, but over the next decade,'" Heck said after a job fair in his suburban Las Vegas district. A top target of Democrats this November, Heck is certain that seriousness about addressing the federal deficit will win over voters, especially in his state, hit hard by home foreclosures and record unemployment.
In Colorado, Democratic Rep. Ed Perlmutter is determined to use the spending plan crafted by the House Budget Committee chairman, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., as a campaign issue.
"It's a winner (for Democrats) because that budget is such a loser," said Perlmutter, a suburban Denver congressman facing a challenge from a well-known name — Joe Coors Jr., scion of the brewing company.
Democrats and Republicans in Congress can't agree on a budget, but there's no disagreement about using Ryan's to highlight an election-year divide.
President Barack Obama has called the GOP budget a backward "radical vision" and "thinly veiled social Darwinism" that would let many people struggle while the rich benefit. Republicans say their plan is a sober approach to dealing with out-of-control government spending and higher taxes in an era that demands fiscal austerity.
The debate underscores the broader dispute between the two parties about the role and size of government.
From town halls to job fairs to meet-and-greets with voters during Congress' two-week recess, Democrats and Republicans focused on the budget in a preview of the seven-month campaign to November. The economy and jobs are voters' priorities, and how the budget debate plays out could prove critical in the fall, with control of the White House, Senate and House at stake.
Obama and likely GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney have both signaled that the budget plan will be an element in their race.
The House plan would make deep cuts to government programs. Everything from food stamps to transportation is on the chopping block. It calls for shrinking the current six income-tax rate system to just two and lowering the top rate to 25 percent from the current 35 percent.
The most politically dicey element is the change in Medicare, the $500 billion-a-year health insurance program for older people. Both parties are keenly aware that this group votes in high numbers and cares passionately about the program.
Republicans would leave the plan alone for retirees and those nearing retirement. For younger people, Medicare would be reshaped into a voucher-like system in which the government would subsidize people's health care costs. Republicans say that would drive down costs by giving beneficiaries a menu of competing options. Democrats say government payments won't keep up with the rapid inflation of medical costs, leaving many struggling to afford the care.
Heck's district has its share of seniors at retirement communities. The 50-year-old former state senator won his seat in 2010 by just 1,748 votes and faces a strong challenge from the speaker of the Nevada Assembly, John Oceguera. He calls the Ryan plan, passed just two weeks ago, one of the keys to victory.
"The Ryan budget and the Medicare issues are big for people," Oceguera said. "We would like to get information out about how damaging that could be to people's personal lives. It's going to affect a lot of folks."
Heck focused on job creation and the economy during his remarks at the job fair he organized. He didn't mention the House GOP budget, but said he is confident voters will support it when they learn more.
"While folks here may or may not realize it, those types of things directly or indirectly are going to make life better for them," he said. "Certainly we need to draw that connection that, look, as we get our deficit under control and we control our spending in Washington that's going to give more stability and predictability."
Nate Williams, a 22-year-old unemployed electrician who attended Heck's job fair, said he had thought he had heard of Ryan's plan but wanted to hear more about how to create jobs.
"People in Nevada need help from Washington, from someone," he said.
In a swing district in Michigan, Republican Rep. Dan Benishek was greeted at a town hall by a group of seniors holding signs saying "Save Medicare." They pressed the freshman lawmaker about the GOP budget's proposed cuts.
"We'll have a significant change to benefits unless we do something about (Medicare)," Benishek told constituents, while standing by his budget vote.
At a town hall event in New Hampshire, GOP Rep. Charlie Bass faced similarly pointed questions. He told voters some of what's been publicized about the plan has been mischaracterized. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., who defeated 17-term Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton in 2010, also faced questions from constituents about the plan's effect on Medicare.
All three, in seats Democrats would like to win this fall, can expect Democrats to bring up the issue over and over again.
Perlmutter said he's heard from several voters about the Ryan plan. Republicans see his district, split nearly evenly among Republicans, Democrats and independents, as one of their best pick up opportunities in the fall. They've recruited Coors to run against him.
At an event in a grocery store, Perlmutter's constituents showed why both sides feel they can get traction on the budget issue in the fall.
Glen Erfman, a 56-year-old U.S. Postal Service employee from Lakewood, Colo., quizzed his congressman on the budget plan and called it "terrible."
"My main issue with Congress is, they're out to do all they can to cut everything for regular people but not rich people," Erfman said.
Steps away at the same event self-employed 62-year-old Rick Piggott, also from Lakewood, said Democrats needed to give the plan much more serious consideration.
"We need to cut spending — big time. Big time," he said. "But our president doesn't seem to care about cutting anything."
Associated Press writers Cristina Silva in Henderson, Nev., and Kristen Wyatt in Lakewood, Colo., contributed to this report.