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Senate budget chief cool on Ryan plan

Says work will be based on ‘Gang of Six’ proposal

- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 17, 2011

The fate of the GOP House Budget plan that easily passed the chamber last week grows far murkier as budget talks proceed to the Senate, where the controlling Democrats have little enthusiasm for the bill's aim to cut government spending by almost $6 trillion during the next decade.

Sen. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, who is Senate Budget Committee chairman, has indicated that he wants to consider a compromise being hammered out by a bipartisan Senate group called the "Gang of Six" as a framework for a Senate version, a senior Senate Democratic aide said.

The Gang of Six — three Republicans and three Democrats, including Mr. Conrad — has been meeting for several months to develop a Senate budget proposal.

Mr. Conrad has been critical of the House GOP plan since it was released by Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican, who is chairman of the House Budget Committee, on April 5, calling it "partisan and ideological" and "unreasonable and unsustainable." President Obama criticized the plan in a speech at George Washington University last week.

Sen. Mark Warner, Virginia Democrat and a Gang of Six member, said Sunday on CBS'"Face the Nation" that while he gives Mr. Ryan credit for attempting to tackle the country's fiscal woes, he disagrees with the plan's premise that "basically says no new revenues of any kind."

"It's not an approach I think that the vast majority of Americans would want," Mr. Warner said. "What [the Gang of Six is] doing is, we're saying everything has to be on the table."

Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a Republican member of the group, said on "Fox News Sunday" that he thinks there is a good chance the group will devise a bipartisan agreement "that people can swallow."

"Nobody is going to like what we come up with — the left isn't going to like it, and the right isn't going to like it," Mr. Coburn said. "And that's one thing that would be an indicator that is probably the best compromise we're going to be able to get.

"So, I think there's a good likelihood that we can get there. It's not a sure thing."

Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the senior Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, has chastised Senate Democrats for dismissing the Ryan plan.

"What we've been seeing in this chamber are just attacks on Congressman Ryan, attacks on anybody that says change has got to occur," Mr. Sessions said on the Senate floor last week. "Is this going to be the nature of our discussion?"

Mr. Ryan's budget blueprint, which would far exceed Mr. Obama's aim to cut the growth of the deficit by more than $1 trillion during the next decade, passed the House on Friday without any Democratic support. Four Republicans voted against it.

The plan aims to reduce government spending growth by $5.8 trillion during the next decade through a series of program cuts, entitlement reforms, tax code overhauls and a repeal of the 2010 health care law.

Although the budget blueprint is nonbinding, it will serve as a starting point when debate on the federal government's 2012 spending bills heat up in the coming weeks and months. The next fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner on Sunday said the battle over the Ryan budget or any other long-term spending plans will not derail an upcoming vote to raise the country's $14.3 trillion debt ceiling.

"I want to make it perfectly clear that Congress will raise the debt ceiling," Mr. Geithner said during an appearance on ABC's "This Week." "They told the president that on Wednesday in the White House."

The Ryan plan would eliminate or curtail hundreds of federal programs that Republicans consider duplicative, bring non-security discretionary spending below 2008 levels and hold to a Republican pledge to ban earmarks.

Despite Mr. Ryan's proposed spending cuts, his budget wouldn't show a surplus for about two decades. But he said the country faces another economic crisis unless spending is curbed significantly.

Democrats say the plan shows that Republican priorities are more aligned with the wealthy and big business, not the middle and lower classes.

One of the most contentious aspects of the Ryan plan is a provision that would convert the government's Medicare health plan for seniors into a system in which the government would provide payments for private health insurance plans. The conversion would begin in 2022, though seniors covered by Medicare at the time would be allowed to stay on it.

Democrats say the plan would "dismantle" Medicare and force seniors to pay more out-of-pocket health care expenses.

"The whole reason we created Medicare to begin [with] was because private health insurance market could not provide seniors with affordable health care," Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said on "Fox News Sunday."

But Mr. Ryan said Medicare will go bankrupt in nine years unless drastic reforms are taken.

"We think we should keep the promise to current seniors and people 10 years away from retiring, but then reform the system for the next generation so that it's safe and solvent," he said Sunday on "Face the Nation."

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