In the campaign season for an election that Republican leaders hope will be a referendum on President Obama, a broad plan for spending cuts proposed by the top Republican on the House Budget Committee has injected serious policy heft into the conversation - and given Democrats a target to return fire.
Rep. Paul D. Ryan's "Roadmap for America's Future" - which proposes major changes to taxes, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid - has attracted support from some of the GOP's most conservative members, but top leaders have kept their distance.
One of them is House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio, who this week ducked a question on the specifics of the plan even as he blasted the Obama administration for ballooning spending.
Mr. Ryan's plan has gained staying power in the political discussion, though, if for no other reason than the Obama administration and Democratic campaign operatives are intent on making it stick.
"Candidates backing this budget plan have shown themselves to be out of touch with struggling families in these tough economic times because they're backing a plan to dismantle Medicare as we know it and turn Social Security over to Wall Street banks," said Jesse Ferguson, southern regional press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "After Americans celebrate the 75th anniversary of Social Security this month, they're not going to put people in charge who support a plan that destroys it."
The DCCC has challenged Republicans to stand with or against Mr. Ryan, and campaign operatives have been combing press reports and radio appearances in search of Republicans who are backing the plan - but most are trying to stay mum.
The plan has attracted just 13 co-sponsors in the House, and a handful of candidates running for the House and Senate have also embraced it. But no congressional Republican leader has signed on, drawing a rebuke from former Rep. Dick Armey, an architect of Republicans' 1994 electoral success.
"The fact that he only has 13 co-sponsors is a big reason why our folks are agitated against the Republicans as well as the Democrats," he said Sunday on NBC's "Meet The Press." "The difference between being a co-sponsor with Ryan or not is a thing called courage."
Two days later, Mr. Boehner was questioned about the plan during a speech at the City Club of Cleveland and carefully avoided saying what he liked or disliked about it.
Mr. Boehner said Mr. Ryan has "done some really, really good work in putting this plan together," and then turned his focus to Mr. Obama and to framing the challenges - but didn't embrace any solutions, other than calling for "an adult conversation."
"We face big challenges both in the short term and in the long term," he said. "We're not going to solve that challenge by getting into the usual scare tactics and political nonsense that goes on. Let's have an adult conversation."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican also didn't answer directly Sunday when asked by NBC whether he supports Mr. Ryan's plan.
He instead pointed to Mr. Obama's bipartisan deficit reduction commission as an incubator of solutions to the "serious long-term debt problem - unfunded liabilities related to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid."
"I don't think we ought to make what they may be doing a political football between now and November," Mr. McConnell said.
In 2005, Democrats blasted Republicans for pushing through $10 billion in Medicare and Medicaid cuts.
Over the past year, Republicans turned the tables on entitlement programs, accusing Democrats of cutting hundreds of billions of dollars from Medicare in their health care overhaul.
Now it's Democrats' turn, and the focus is on Social Security.
At three campaign stops in Pennsylvania on Thursday, Republican Senate candidate Patrick J. Toomey faced people holding signs calling on him not to touch the program.
The official legislative version of Mr. Ryan's plan stretches to 629 pages and touches on all areas: It would turn Medicare and Medicaid into vouchers to pay for private insurance, with spending increases tightly controlled; it would peg Social Security increases to slower-rising prices rather than wages, and would allow personal investment accounts as part of the program; and it would overhaul the tax code, removing most deductions and special carve-outs for individuals, and replacing the corporate income tax with a consumption tax.
As much as anything, Mr. Ryan's plan has been the starting point of plenty of conversations among serious-minded legislators and think tanks.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, said it amounts to "enormous tax cuts for the affluent" and challenged analysts who said it would reduce the debt, arguing that it instead would lead to decades of unsustainable debt levels. The Heritage Foundation, though, called the Ryan tax proposal "an intellectually sound, coherent and fundamental path to tax reform."
Mr. Ryan has had dueling columns with New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who said the congressman was "serving up leftovers from the 1990s, drenched in flimflam sauce."
Along the way, he's won praise from Mr. Obama and House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, for starting a discussion.
Mr. Hoyer said it's striking that the plan, which Mr. Ryan first introduced in 2008 and then revised in January, hasn't gained more Republican support.
"The Republican Party has run away from Paul Ryan's plan, even though you'd expect it to rush to embrace a proposal based on spending cuts," he said in a June speech calling for bipartisan solutions on long-term budget challenges.
Many of the House GOP's strongest spending watchdogs are among the 13 co-sponsors of the bill, while a handful of Republican candidates in both the House and Senate have voiced varying levels of support.
"I like just about every part of it, and you've got to commend him for putting it out there," Dan Kapanke, who is seeking to unseat Rep. Ron Kind, Wisconsin Democrat, said this month, according to the Tomah Journal.
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