Newt Gingrich
Alex Hicks Jr.  /  AP
Former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich speaks at the Spartanburg County GOP Convention in Spartanburg, S.C., on Saturday.
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updated 4/11/2011 2:43:08 PM ET 2011-04-11T18:43:08

Republicans are pressing ahead with one of the most ambitious and risky long-term spending agendas in memory, yet the dozen or so potential White House hopefuls are nearly invisible on the issue.

They can't stay on the sidelines for long, however. The contentious debate will rope them in on terms they might find hard to control.

The triumph of Tea Party candidates in 2010 pumped new urgency into a long-brewing Republican Party push for major cuts in domestic and benefit programs, including Medicare and Social Security.

In the absence of a Republican president or clear-cut party leader, a little-known congressman from Wisconsin seized the initiative. Backed by most House Republicans, Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman, wrote a far-reaching spending plan that right away framed the debate on Capitol Hill.

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His proposal for the budget year that begins Oct. 1 calls for cutting spending by $5.8 trillion over 10 years. Ryan, R-Wis., would reduce tax rates for corporations and the wealthy, and eliminate various tax loopholes.

Story: The 2012 GOP presidential field

The blueprint aims to convert Medicare, the health insurance program for older people, into a subsidy or voucher program. Many probably would pay more for medical services.

Medicaid, which helps the poor and disabled, would become a state-run block grant program, a shift that would reduce federal spending by billions of dollars.

Democrats quickly pounced.

"It doesn't reform Medicare. It deforms and dismantles it," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee. As for Medicaid, he said, the budget "rips apart the safety net" for the poor and elderly.

Gingrich: Ryan's plan will define 2012 for GOP
Expect similar criticisms in the 2012 presidential contest, which is why Republican contenders must approach Ryan's plan with caution.

Ryan's proposal for 2012 and beyond is unrelated to Congress's testy battle over the current year's budget fight, which nearly led to a government shutdown at the end of this past week.

Attention now turns to Ryan's plan and the fate of taxes, spending and the social safety net over the long term.

Video: Vote count still unclear for budget bill (on this page)

"Paul Ryan is going to define modern conservatism at a serious level," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on the radio show hosted by Bill Bennett, President Ronald Reagan's education secretary. "The general shape of what he's doing will define 2012 for Republicans."

Gingrich, who headed an ill-fated congressional bid to revamp Medicare in 1995, is preparing for a presidential run.

Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who managed Bob Dole's 1996 GOP presidential campaign, said Ryan's budget proposal "will drive the debate through the nominating process and into much of the general election." He said Ryan "has filled this huge policy void in the party with this very bold set of ideas."

Stealing candidates' thunder
Presidential contenders usually like to be the ones proposing bold solutions to pressing problems, even if it's Congress's job to pass budget bills. But Ryan has stolen that thunder, much as Republican governors in Wisconsin, New Jersey and Ohio have overshadowed the presidential field in the GOP campaign against government labor unions.

For now, the potential presidential candidates are keeping a low profile on the issue. Several have offered vague praise for Ryan, leaving themselves room to maneuver.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney applauded Ryan "for recognizing the looming financial crisis that faces our nation and for the creative and bold thinking that he brings to the debate."

Story: Ryan defends plan for fundamental Medicare redesign

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the 2008 GOP Iowa caucus, applauded Ryan, but noted the proposal has little chance of enactment so long as Democrats control the White House and Senate.

But Ryan's plan has gained so much attention and praise in Republican circles that the contenders won't be able to ignore it for long, if they want to seize control of the debate on their terms.

Candidates who appear tepid about Ryan's cost-cutting might lose favor in primaries dominated by debt-hating conservatives. But heartily embracing the proposals could haunt the eventual nominee if President Barack Obama can portray his challenger as recklessly willing to undercut health care for the poor and elderly.

Waiting for the dust to settle
Dan Schnur, a former aide to Republican presidents and governors, said the contenders are smart to keep their heads down.

"They can't compete for headlines with either the governors or the Republicans in Congress," said Schnur, who heads the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "So they might as well keep their distance until the dust settles. But at a certain point, those candidates are going to have to engage."

History suggests they be wary of seeking significant changes to Medicare, Social Security or subsidy programs without at least some Democratic support.

One-party drives typically have failed. In 1981 and 1985, President Ronald Reagan and GOP lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to trim Social Security benefits. Gingrich's failed effort to rein in Medicare in 1995 led to politically damaging government shutdowns. President George W. Bush got nowhere with his 2005 bid to partially privatize Social Security, which Democrats denounced.

Happier results came from bipartisan agreements to raise Social Security's eligibility age and payroll taxes in 1983, and to curb welfare benefits in 1996 under President Bill Clinton.

A cause, not a budget
Ryan calls his proposal a cause, not a budget. Such remarks may rally conservatives who say it's time for painful medicine to cure the nation's growing debt habits. GOP presidential candidates will need these voters in the Iowa caucus, New Hampshire primary and beyond.

But by the fall of 2012, Obama may try to convince independent voters that his GOP opponent has embraced a partisan cause rather than a fair, even-handed spending agenda for America.

His allies are laying the groundwork. Ryan's budget "represents the victory of the Tea Party mentality over mainstream conservatism within the Republican Party," said Bill Galston, an aide in the Clinton White House.

If that message resonates with a wide audience, Ryan's ambitious plan may leave a dubious legacy.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: The 2012 GOP presidential field

  • A look at the Republican candidates hoping to challenge Barack Obama in the general election.

  • Rick Perry, announced Aug. 13

    Image: Perry
    Sean Gardner  /  REUTERS
    Texas Gov. Rick Perry

    Mere hours before a major GOP debate in Iowa (and a couple of days before the high-interest Ames straw poll), the Perry camp announced that the Texas governor was all-in for 2012.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas governor.

    While some on ground in the early-caucus state criticized the distraction, strategists applauded the move and said Perry was giving Romney a run for his money.

    Slideshow: A look at Gov. Rick Perry's political career

    He may face fierce opposition from secular groups and progressives who argue that his religious rhetoric violates the separation of church and state and that his belief that some groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America, should be allowed to discriminate against gays is bigoted.

  • Jon Huntsman, announced June 21

    Image: Jon Hunt
    Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
    Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

    Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, made his bid official on June 21 at at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former governor of Utah.

    He vowed to provide "leadership that knows we need more than hope" and "leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems."

    The early days of his campaign were clouded with reports of internal discord among senior staffers.

    Slideshow: Jon Huntsman Jr.

    Huntsman, who is Mormon, worked as a missionary in Taiwan and is fluent in Mandarin. But his moderate credentials — backing civil unions for gays and the cap-and-trade energy legislation — could hurt him in a GOP primary. So could serving under Obama.

  • Michele Bachmann, announced on June 13

    Image: Michele Bachmann
    Larry Downing  /  REUTERS
    Rep. Michele Bachmann

    Born and raised in Iowa, this Tea Party favorite and Minnesota congresswoman announced during a June 13 GOP debate that she's officially in the running for the Republican nomination.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Minn. congresswoman.

    Bachmann tells The Associated Press she decided to jump into the 2012 race at this time because she believed it was "the right thing to do."

    She's been criticized for making some high-profile gaffes — among them, claiming taxpayers would be stuck with a $200 million per day tab for President Barack Obama's trip to India and identifying New Hampshire as the site of the Revolutionary War's opening shots.

    Slideshow: The political life of Michele Bachmann

    But Bachmann's proved a viable fundraiser, collecting more than $2 million in political contributions in the first 90 days of 2011 — slightly exceeding the $1.8 million Mitt Romney brought in via his PAC in the first quarter.

  • Rick Santorum, announced on June 6

    Image: Rick Santorum
    Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
    Former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum

    A staunch cultural conservative vehemently against abortion and gay marriage, the former Pennsylvania senator hopes to energize Republicans with a keen focus on social issues.

    He announced the launch of a presidential exploratory committee on FOX News, where he makes regular appearances. He make his run official on June 6 in Somerset, Pa., asking supporters to "Join the fight!"

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Pennsylvania senator.

    No stranger to controversy, Santorum was condemned by a wide range of groups in 2003 for equating homosexuality with incest, pedophilia and bestiality. More recently, Santorum faced criticism when he called Obama’s support for abortion rights “almost remarkable for a black man.”

    Slideshow: Rick Santorum's political life

    Since his defeat by Democrat Robert Casey in his 2006 re-election contest — by a whopping 18 percentage points — Santorum has worked as an attorney and as a think-tank contributor.

    A February straw poll at CPAC had him in twelfth place amongst Republicans with 2 percent of the vote.

  • Mitt Romney, announced on June 2

    Image: Mitt Romney
    Paul Sancya  /  AP file
    Former Massachusetts Gov. and presidential candidate Mitt Romney

    The former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate has spent the last three years laying the foundations for another run at the White House — building a vigorous political action committee, making regular media appearances, and penning a policy-heavy book.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Mass. governor.

    In April, he announced, via YouTube and Twitter, that he'd formed an exploratory commitee. Romney made his run official in Stratham, N.H., on June 2.

    The former CEO of consulting firm Bain & Company and the president of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney frequently highlights his business background as one of his main qualifications to serve as president.

    Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics

    To capture the nomination, Romney will have to defend the health care overhaul he enacted during his governorship — legislation that bears similarities to the Obama-backed bill despised by many conservatives. He'll also have to overcome the perception of being a flip-flopper (like supporting abortion rights in his 1994 and 2002 bids for office, but opposing them in his '08 run).

    In the first quarter of 2011, he netted some $1.8 million through his PAC "Free and Strong America."

  • Herman Cain, announced on May 21

    Image: Herman Cain
    Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images file
    Talk show host Herman Cain

    Cain, an Atlanta radio host and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has support from some Tea Party factions.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Atlanta radio host.

    An African-American who describes himself as a “citizen’s candidate,” he was the first Republican to form a formal presidential exploratory committee. He officially entered the race in May, telling supporters, "When we wake up and they declare the presidential results, and Herman Cain is in the White House, we'll all be able to say, free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last, again!"

    Prior to the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate, Cain rehashed the birther theory, telling a Florida blogger, “I respect people that believe he should prove his citizenship ... He should prove he was born in the United States of America.”

  • Ron Paul, announced on May 13

    Image: Ron Paul
    Cliff Owen  /  AP file
    Rep. Ron Paul

    In 2008, Texas congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian rallying cry — and his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — did not fall on deaf ears. An idiosyncratic foe of the Federal Reserve and a passionate advocate for limited government, Paul mounted a presidential run that was characterized by bursts of jaw-dropping online fundraising.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas congressman.

    Slideshow: Ron Paul

    He officially launched his 2012 campaign in New Hampshire, saying, ""The revolution is spreading, and the momentum is building ... Our time has come."

    In the first quarter of 2011, raked in some $3 million through his various political organizations.

  • Newt Gingrich, announced on May 11

    Image: Newt Gingrich
    John M. Heller  /  Getty Images file
    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

    The former speaker of the House who led the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” Gingrich remains a robust presence on the GOP stage as a prolific writer and political thinker. In recent years, Barack Obama has provided a new target for the blistering critiques Gingrich famously leveled at President Bill Clinton.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former speaker of the House.

    In early May, he made his 2012 run official. "I have been humbled by all the encouragement you have given me to run," Gingrich wrote on Facebook and Twitter.

    But a month later, the campaign was practically in ruins — with his campaign manager, spokesman, senior strategists all resigning en masse. Most cited issues with the "direction" of the campaign. But Gingrich vowed to press on.

    Slideshow: Newt Gingrich

    Also at issue: Gingrich’s personal life could make winning the support of social conservatives thorny for the twice-divorced former lawmaker. In a damning interview earlier this year, Esquire quoted one of Gingrich’s former wives describing him as a hypocrite who preached the sanctity of marriage while in the midst of conducting an illicit affair.

    Additional obstacles include his recent criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal plan as “right-wing social engineering" and reports of a $500,000 line of credit to Tiffany’s, the luxury jewelry company.

  • Gary Johnson, announced on April 21

    Image:Gary Johnson
    Jim Cole  /  AP
    Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

    The former New Mexico governor took a big leap in late April, not by announcing an exploratory committee, but by actually announcing his official candidacy. “I’m running for president of the United States,” he told a couple of supporters and cameramen gathered for his announcement outside the New Hampshire State Capitol.

    He's a steadfast libertarian who supports the legalization of marijuana. He vetoed more than 700 pieces of legislation during his two terms as governor.

Video: Vote count still unclear for budget bill

  1. Closed captioning of: Vote count still unclear for budget bill

    >> is set to vote this wednesday on the $38.5 billion budget deal that was agreed to late friday night. the powerful social conservatives like mike pence say they won't support it. georgia congressman tom price chairs the republican policy ? committee. so he's a key player on the budget committee as well as a member of the leadership. what are the tea leaves saying right now? to you think that budget do you think that will get a successful upvote?

    >> thank you so much. i think it will. it is not all that we wanted, but it is all that we could get and it certainly is more than the other side wanted to give. so i view this as very positive. it is a change in the dynamic. it is a change in the debate to cut the spending as opposed to increase the spending in washington . as so we look forward to a positive vote this week. and also introducing the 2012 budget , our vision for the future.

    >> who played the best hand, so far? you've got the president and the speaker both trying to appease their wings, but the president at least got planned parenthood and all the rest of that out, the epa legislation, the riders out of there. the speaker got far more than he ever expected. winner and losers. i know you're not a nonpartisan here, but just trying to take a step back.

    >> i think really what -- we'll let historians pick winners and losers. i think what the speaker did was remarkable in terms of holding the conference together and moving forward very positively in the kinds of votes that will be able to get in the senate on obama care, up or down and on planned parenthood , up or down. on changing the dynamic, i'm truly decreasing the amount of spending and then trillions of dollars of spending cuts that we'll see with our 2012 budget coming forward this week. we're going to have a very exciting week, a week that sets things right, i think, in terms of the direction of the country. remarkable challenges that we have. but i think we're beginning to move things in the right direction.

    >> now, what do you say to people like congresswoman karen bass on with chuck todd earlier today, a former top legislator from california . here is her ? objections to paul ryan 's approach on the block grants for medicaid . let's watch.

    >> if it was a block grant , let's say it is $100, okay, that goes to the states, or a million dollars, that's it. so if that had happened to california , when we were in the midst of the worst recession since the great depression, it would have been extremely devastating. can you imagine in the early '80s with the aids epidemic if there was a cap on medicaid . that would have been devastating. people would have literally died.

    >> so, to the --

    >> a couple points --

    >> i was going to say, you're a physician as well. but to the concept of taking the medicaid , you know, the medicaid money and making it a block grant to the state , it is a total cap. irrespective of whether or not you go into a recession and more people are thrown into the poverty roles, how do you justify that as the approach?

    >> well, because, that's the only way truly we can really save the program. california hasn't done too well under the current system as you can clearly see and if representative bass was honest, she would admit that.

    >> well, they had extraordinary streng strains on their budget . immigration increases, more people on welfare, more people needing medicaid , and as she points out in the '80s with the huge epidemic of aids.

    >> this is exactly the kind of solution, though that was put in place under president clinton and a republican congress in the '90s for the welfare program . block granting it to the states provides the states much greater flexibility, they can increase the kind of coverage they want should they so desire. it gives them the flexibility to be able to put a program in place that allows for medical care for their indigent population as opposed to the federal government deciding a one size fits all from washington . that doesn't work. it doesn't work in medicaid . and we're going to save medicaid by moving it to the states.

    >> well, let me also ask you about the debt ceiling. jay carney has been briefing as we been talking. and this is part of what he had to say about the importance of raising the debt ceiling.

    >> the consequences of not failing to raise the debt ceiling would be armageddon-like in terms of the economy. on the impact of interest rates, on job creation, on growth would be devastating.

    >> what is your reaction to that and how seriously do you think the leadership, both parties, have to take the debt ceiling deadline?

    >> well, look, just as we didn't want to shut down the government, we're not interested in not increasing the debt limit. we are interested in making certain that any increase in the debt limit, which you can't have the united states to default on its debt, but any increase has to be accompanied by structural changes to washington spending habits. we need to change the inertia from spending to saving. the way to do that is through a balanced budget amount or a spending cap or a two-year budget cycle or all of the above. but we're not interested in paying for past grievances without cutting up the credit card . that's what you got to do to stop spending that's what we could do to our kids what families do every single day to make sure they spend within their means, that's what the federal government must do.

    >> and you're talking about spending now, not talking about social agendas.

    >> well, in terms of the debt ceiling, we need to change the structural aspect of the budget and spending itself. there are all sorts of pressure points in the debates that we're having, the continuing resolution, the 2012 budget , the debt limit and then we have the appropriations bills. there is more than enough opportunity to be able to get fundamental change in policy. but in terms of the debt ceiling, i think what ? we need is absolute changes in the processes that we go about in terms of our budge sot so we're not in this limit over and over and over again. got to get things back in line so we don't spend more than we take in.

    >> congressman tom price , always a pleasure. thank you very much for joining us.

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