Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
The conventional wisdom is that the Republicans got nothing—except some historic disapproval numbers and a lot of internal backbiting—from the whole shutdown showdown.
But there are different Republicans, with different intentions, and not all of them were frowning as the week of their party’s public shame came to a conclusion.
It is certainly true that Texas Senator Ted Cruz has become a political punch line—the Canadian-born Republican whom Democrats would most like to see the Grand Old Party nominate for president. House Speaker John Boehner’s name is likely to enter the lexicon as an antonym for “leadership.” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is going to be spending an inordinate amount of time discussing the term “Kentucky kickback.” And it may even be dawning on the Tea Partisans that the whole “defund Obamacare” gambit was a charade.
The real point of the exercise in chaos that the country was just dragged through was the chaos itself.
And the beneficiary of it all is the Republican who has suddenly stepped back into the limelight after laying low through most of the shutdown: House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin.
Fully aware that the American people have no taste for a “grand bargain” that might see the implementation of at least some of his Ayn Rand–inspired “survival-of-the-fittest” proposals for means-testing earned-benefit programs, for taking the first steps toward privatization of Social Security, for turning Medicare and Medicaid into voucher programs, Ryan has for years been looking for an opening that makes his proposals seem “necessary.”
The 2012 election, when he was his party’s “big ideas” guy, and its nominee for vice president, confirmed that there was no electoral route to advance his agenda. Americans rejected Ryan, overwhelmingly. He could not even carry his home state for the Romney-Ryan ticket, which was defeated by a 5 million popular-vote margin and a 332-206 Electoral College blowout. Ryan knew that it would take more to get his opening. And the crisis of the past several weeks in Washington provided it.
Some analysts were surprised when Ryan voted against the deal to temporarily end the shutdown and raise the debt ceiling. They shouldn’t have been. While it’s true that Ryan—an enthusiastic backer of the 2008 bank bailout—is a reliable vote for the agenda of the Wall Street speculators who fund his campaigns, he wasn’t going against his political patrons when he joined 143 other House Republicans in voting “no.” Rather, the Budget Committee chairman—who just reported raising more than $1 million in fresh campaign funds in the third quarter of 2013—was voting to strengthen his own hand as he steps into the ring for the next stage of an inside-the-Beltway fight that is far from finished.
The deal that ended the shutdown set up a high-stakes conference committee on budget issues. If there is to be a “grand bargain,” this is where it will be generated. And Ryan—the most prominent of the fourteen Democrats, fourteen Republicans and two independents on the committee—is in the thick of it.
The Budget Committee chairman says it would be “premature to get into exactly how we’re going to” sort out budget issues.
But no one should have any doubts about the hard bargain he will drive for. In the midst of the shutdown, Ryan jumped the gun by penning a Wall Street Journal op-ed that proposed: “Reforms to entitlement programs and the tax code…”
“Here are just a few ideas to get the conversation started,” Ryan wrote. “We could ask the better off to pay higher premiums for Medicare. We could reform Medigap plans to encourage efficiency and cut costs. And we could ask federal employees to contribute more to their own retirement.”
Translation: Get ready for the radical reshaping of Medicare so that it is no longer a universal program. Make way for more price-gouging by the private companies that sell supplemental insurance. Launch a new assault on public employees who have already been hit with wage freezes and furloughs.
And Ryan will not stop there.
He never does.
That’s why the Democrats on the conference committee—led by Senate Budget Committee chairman Patty Murray, D-Washington—must be exceptionally wary.
“Chairman Ryan knows I’m not going to vote for his budget, and I know he’s not going to vote for mine,” says Murray. “We’re going to find the common ground between our two budgets that we both can vote on and that’s our goal.”
The thing to remember that Ryan is working to get cuts to earned-benefit programs onto that common ground.
Ryan cast his “no” vote on the deal that set up the conference committee in order to begin organizing his troops for a fight that will set up the next shutdown and debt-ceiling struggles. The committee has a deadline of December 13. That makes its report—or the lack of one—the first deadline on a schedule that proceeds toward new continuing resolution and debt-ceiling votes in January and February. That creates tremendous pressure for a deal, and Ryan’s at the ready.
That answer to his supplications must be a firm “No.”
That’s what Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, is proposing. Sanders, one of a member of the conference committee says: “it is imperative that this new budget helps us create the millions of jobs we desperately need and does not balance the budget on the backs of working people, the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor…”
Sanders’ office notes: “The Senate budget protects Medicare while the House version would end Medicare as we know it by providing coupons for private health insurance. Unlike the House budget, the Senate resolution does not repeal the Affordable Care Act, which would prevent more than 20 million Americans from getting health insurance. The House version would eliminate grants for up to 1 million college students while the Senate plan protects Pell grants. The House version would kick up to 24 million Americans off of Medicaid while the Senate budget would protect their benefits. The Senate budget calls for new revenue while the House version would provide trillions of dollars in tax breaks mainly for the wealthiest Americans and profitable corporations offset by increased taxes on the middle class.”
Ryan would be more than happy to settle for a “common ground” agreement that opens the way for a little bit of privatization, a little bit of movement toward vouchers, a little bit of means testing, a little bit of an increase in the retirement age. But if he gets that, the big “blink” that everyone was talking about during the shutdown fight will have happened.
If that is where this thing ends, it might not be the Democrats who get the last laugh.
It might yet be a Republican named Paul Ryan.