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House of Representatives Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) addresses the Peter G. Peterson Foundation 2011 Fiscal Summit at the Mellon Auditorium on May 25 in Washington, DC.
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updated 5/27/2011 3:44:55 PM ET 2011-05-27T19:44:55

Paul Ryan is ready to show his stiff upper lip.

The House Budget Committee chairman finds himself at the center of a national debate over Medicare and, clearly reveling the fight, is using British metaphors to explain his desire for a top-to-bottom debate over his budget blueprint and the massive restructuring of Medicare it envisions for every American 55 and younger.

"This is a Churchillian-type of moment in history," Ryan told National Journal. "The polls are predictable. They are regrettable. But this is a unique time in our history. We can't go wobbly."

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Winston Churchill carries a dual metaphorical meaning for conservatives. They invoke him as someone who was politically scorned and isolated for warning of a foreseeable but underappreciated danger — Adolf Hitler. They also see Churchill as indefatigable and heroic in summoning British grit, perseverance and tenacity in the face of the Nazi blitz.

Many Americans revere Churchill for these same qualities, and the adoration is by no means uniquely Republican. But Republicans claim Churchill more frequently than Democrats. Ryan's reference to "wobbly" is straight from the Iron Lady — former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — who famously told President George H.W. Bush after the United Nations approved a resolution enforcing an embargo on Iraq that "this was no time to go wobbly … and we must not let the faint hearts grow in strength."

Ryan, in essence, intends to be Churchill and Thatcher as the debate over Medicare's future intensifies. And Ryan thinks this is his moment.

"I was made and wired for this type of thing," he said in an interview from his Capitol office late Thursday. "We are on the right side of history. We are ready. I talked to at least 100 Republican members in the last two days. They all told me, "We gotta go, we've got to defend this.' They are not queasy. They are all saying, 'Put me in coach.' Our members are comfortable."

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Ryan said from the start that the budget he proposed and won near-unanimous support for in the House (only four GOP members dissented) and sizable support for among Senate Republicans (four opposing it because it went too far and one, Rand Paul of Kentucky, opposing because it didn't go far enough) is neither dead nor dying. He acknowledged that party pollsters advised House Republican leaders that his Medicare proposals would create political hardships.

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"We knew that already," Ryan said. "But our minds are in a different place. These new people, the 87 freshmen, they are cause people, not career people. They are all more about the cause than their career. We had hoped Democrats would try to be our legislative partners. We now know they will use demagoguery and scare tactics. That just sharpens our focus."

Ryan sounds ready, and he is not alone.

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Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., said that Republicans had to press forward with the Ryan plan to turn Medicare into a program supported by direct payments to seniors, but he harbored some anxiety that GOP leaders might back down. "I'm worried they are worried," West said. "We need to stay strong."

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House Democrats believe the results in the New York 26th District special election prove that a Democrat can focus on the Medicare issue and prevail — and will be able to do so next November. "We don't want to read too much into this, but they have given us the central issue," said a senior House Democratic aide. "And we will use it, and we feel very good about our chances."

Ryan said that Republicans "have time on our side" and will use the intervening months from now until next November to contrast their plan with the lack of a coherent Democratic alternative. "We have led. The president’s budget didn't receive a single vote in the Senate."

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House Democratic aides were quick to counter that Republicans used aggressive Democratic policy proposals on health care, climate change, the stimulus, and financial regulatory reform against them and prevailed in 2010. "Republicans will lose," one House Democratic aide said flatly. "We led in the last Congress. We were bold. We had plans. We did the things President Obama promised in the campaign. And we lost."

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Ryan acknowledged part of the Democratic hostility to his plans for Medicare arise from residual resentment over GOP attacks on the $500 billion in Medicare cuts included in Obama's health care law. Republicans relentlessly attacked Democrats for the cost savings (and the double-counting of them described by the Congressional Budget Office).

"The weaponization of entitlement reform has been used by both parties," Ryan said.

Despite Ryan's will to fight, there are signs that House GOP leaders are moving on from the Medicare debate. They unveiled a job-creation bill on Thursday and next week will vote on a "clean" debt-ceiling bill that’s bound to fail because it doesn’t contain spending cuts. But since the White House, through Vice President Joe Biden, has already agreed to negotiations over spending cuts as part of debt-ceiling compromise, next week’s strikes many Democrats as a mindless theatrics.

"They are trying to change the subject," another House Democratic leadership aide said. "The debt issue works for them. Unlike Medicare. They are getting away from that."

Ryan’s budget is a blueprint. It sets parameters for underlying policy — and the bills to make that policy come to life. But there is no sign the Ways and Means Committee will draft legislation to transform Medicare along the lines the Ryan budget envisions.

Two senior GOP lawmakers told NJ the Budget and Ways and Means committees met privately this week to plot strategy. Ways and Means will back the Ryan plan by holding hearings on its implications but is not planning on drafting legislation in the near future.

Senate rejects Ryan budget; vote puts GOP on the spot

Even so, Ryan’s budget has now become something of a purification test for Republican presidential candidates. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, after a brief phase of neutrality, said on Thursday that he would sign legislation enacting the Ryan plan. Doubtless, top-tier GOP contenders Mitt Romney and John Huntsman will face similar questions. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign suffered a severe — possibly debilitating setback — when he dubbed the Ryan plan "radical social engineering from the right" and then back-tracked.

Ryan said he doesn’t consider his budget a litmus test for GOP presidential aspirants. Not entirely, at least.

"That would be fairly presumptuous," Ryan said. “It doesn’t have to be our plan. But I don’t think anyone can go out there and not put your ideas out there. But if you apply conservative principles to the budget and debt problems, it’s going to look a lot like this plan. It would be wrong for us to insist that every single idea in our proposal be in a candidate’s plan. But, you’ve got to be ready to solve this problem.”

The article, "Paul Ryan's Finest Hour," first appeared in the National Journal.

Video: Budget battle blazes toward debt default

  1. Closed captioning of: Budget battle blazes toward debt default

    >>> vice president biden laid out what will be the democrats' 2012 argument last night at a state party dinner in new hampshire. calling republicans a different breed of cat, he pinned paul ryan 's budget on the party.

    >> he really thinks that the way for america to own the 21st century is the prescription he's laid out. and every republican in the congress, obviously, thinks so as well. and all but five republicans in the senate think so as well. and every republican candidate running for president thinks so as well. even newt has seen the lord.

    >> beth rhinehart is a political correspondent for " national journal " and chris cillizza is an msnbc contributor. biden says all the candidates in the presidential race have seen the lord on the paul ryan budget. and, yet, we see romney and pawlenty seeming to backtrack a little bit. let's take a look at what they said about the ryan budget.

    >> i applaud the fact that representative ryan put forward a plan to keep medicare solvent. and i'll note that while i haven't introduced today my own plan, will in the future, it's not going to be identical to the ryan plan.

    >> our proposal will have similarities overall to the ryan road map but our medicare plan will be somewhat different. our plan will include a series of options that people can choose from. one of which will be to stay in the current program.

    >> all right. chris cillizza , how about it? are presidential candidates trying to walk the line here?

    >> here's the problem. what we saw last week and joe biden mentioned it is when newt gingrich called the ryan plan, a medicare piece of it social engineering , people like rush limbaugh , nicky hailey said you can't do this. you are knee capping paul ryan . we need to support this plan. we had a special election on tuesday in which support for medicare by the republican candidate, if not doomed her, certainly made it a lot harder to win a seat republicans should have won. no republican candidate wants to own the ryan plan. mitt romney wants to own the mitt romney plan. tim pawlenty wants to own the tim pawlenty plan. they are not going to sign up for a plan authored out of washington by a member of the republican leadership. that's not what the party wants in a presidential primary . they want people who are going to stand up, run against washington. so none of them are going to own a plan they didn't write. they'll all try and write their own plan that probably, honestly, hedges more on medicare would be my guess.

    >> beth , we know there's a little bit of a divide here inside the republican establishment. the consult apt community who knows how to read polls. then the opinion elites who are really want to get behind this ryan plan. and they seem to be listening to both. the romneys and pawlentys of the world. but they're also nervous about poking ryan too much because it might incite ryan into the presidential race which is still lingering out there a little bit.

    >> right. i mean, i think even republicans are acknowledging since the special election in new york they have to do a better sales job if they are going to run on this medicare plan. what's interesting about it, unlike in the past where the republicans have had the advantage of bumper sticker slogan on their side. remember in the health care debate it was government takeover. now they are faced with sort of the much more nuanced explanation. it's much harder to pitch to the voters. whereas the democrats have the easy, you know, they are going to abolish medicare attack to use. as we saw in new york it can be effective.

    >> chris, let's talk about the republican field. i know republican establishment figures are trying to convey the sense that it's set. these are the candidates. look no further. and yet, there is a lot of speculation again today about sarah palin and her intentions. she's taken a few steps that some think might signal she's considering this race. tell us about it.

    >> you know, savannah, she's -- we thabl have bought she and todd and the family have bought a house in arizona. we have a two-hour movie that's going to premiere first in iowa about her time as governor of alaska and her rise. so, yes if you want to look at -- there are dots out there that can be connected. what i would warn and i'm warning myself because i can get ahead of myself on these things, too, sarah palin 's political career has been the most unorthodox political career i think of any modern politician. she doesn't usually connect the dots. we wouldn't have talked about her resigning from the governorship with 18 months left on her first term. so is it possible she is moving toward a presidential bid? yes. is it equally possible that this movie is just part of the broader sarah palin branding. sarah palin as pop culture figure? sarah palin as best-selling author, as kind of celebrity/politician, a word chuck has coined. yes. i just don't know the answer to that. the only people that know the answer to that are sarah palin and todd palin who haven't talked to me lately, although i'm more than open to take those conversations.

    >> beth , every day that there's a story about sarah palin running in this republican race or at least taking up space, that's a good day for mitt romney , isn't it?

    >> it is because, you know, there's a lot of socially conservative voters out there that could possibly flock to his -- one of his biggest rivals, tim pawlenty if she's not there. and that's really the last thing romney needs.

    >> beth reinhart, chris cillizza and msnbc, thank you.

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