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GOP Debt-Ceiling Gambit is Part and Parcel of Paul Ryan's Scheme to Gut Medicare, Social Security | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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GOP Debt-Ceiling Gambit is Part and Parcel of Paul Ryan's Scheme to Gut Medicare, Social Security

Republican House leaders like John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan have never had any problem with federal spending that helped their political contributors. They rushed in 2008 to vote for the massive bailout of irresponsible banks and multinational corporations, a scam that raided the U.S. Treasury to protect the wealth and privileges of the wealthiest Americans.

Now, Speaker Boehner, Majority Leader Cantor and Budget Committee chair Ryan are so desperate to steer more money to Wall Street that they are leading a bizarre push to block the raising of the debt ceiling -- a technical move traditionally accepted by Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives as standard operating procedure in Washington.

The gambit entered an extreme stage Tuesday, when the House voted 318-97 against allowing an unconditional increase to the debt limit. The Republican talk about deficits and debt, but that is not the point of this project. Speaker Boehner, R-Ohio, says the House is holding the federal government hostage in order to impose "major spending cuts and meaningful reforms." House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Michigan, says House has blocked the raising of the debt ceiling to force “significant spending cuts and budgetary reforms.”

But what kind of cuts and "reforms" are they talking about?

Ryan explains: “You cannot deal with this debt crisis unless you’re serious about entitlement reform."

Translation: They are trying to force the Obama White House and congressional Democrats to accept radical changes in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security -- changes that will begin the process of privatizing these essential programs. Ryan has outlined a plan to restructure Medicare so that federal money is steered away from providing health care and toward a voucher scheme that enriches private for-profit insurance companies. At the same time, he has proposed taking steps to radically alter how Social Security operates, with an eye toward using more retirement dollars to fund Wall Street speculation. 

These initiatives are extraordinarily popular with major campaign donors. But polling suggests Ryan's "reforms" have no appeal among the American people -- as recent election results, especially from upstate New York where a traditionally Republican congressional seat fell to the Democrats last month, confirm. The voters are smart. They recognize that instead of proposing a turn toward fiscal responsibility -- his plan does not balance the budget for more than a quarter century -- Ryan is simply scheming to redistribute the wealth upward.

Faced with the reality that his plan is neither necessary nor popular, Ryan is resorting to scare tactics. And his fellow "conservatives" are going along with the debt-ceiling scam.

But Democrats and responsible Republicans ought not do so.

Unfortunately, the dishonest politics of the budget debate has so infected official Washington that many Democrats are voting with Republicans on what House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, refers to as "charade" votes. Of the 318 votes cast Tuesday against raising the debt ceiling, 82 came from Democrats.

Hoyer had bluntly suggested that Democrats who thought they might be vulnerable to attacks ads from Republicans ranting and raving about deft concerns should vote with the GOP to block the bill.

But that was bad policy and bad politics.

The Republican fight against raising the debt ceiling is part and parcel of the push to gut Medicare and Social Security. Ryan has gone out of his way to link these initiatives, and Democrats should take the budget committee chair at his word.

Republicans are not focused on the debt ceiling because they care about spending issues. They are focused on it as part of a last-ditch effort to resurrect the Ryan plan. The 97 Democrats who voted to raise the debt ceiling did the right thing, for the country and for their party. The seven Democrats, including economic populists such as Ohio's Marcy Kaptur and New York's Maurice Hinchey, who voted "present" raised a credible objection to the sham. But the 82 Democrats who voted with the GOP Tuesday (Including Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi, Jim Clyburn and Hoyer) were -- unwittingly or not -- aiding and abetting the Republican messaging scheme that seeks to open political space for the renewed push to privatize Medicare and Social Security. That's just wrong -- from a policy standpoint and from a messaging standpoint.

The debt-ceiling debate is not done. Ryan says he expects the wrangling to continue until August. Pelosi and the other 81 Democrats who voted with the Republicans Tuesday should think again before they make the same mistake in the future. They should make no common ground with those who seek to rob Medicare and Social Security in order to enrich insurance company CEOs and Wall Street speculators.

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