Rep. Paul Ryan, in a Fox News interview that aired on Tuesday evening, renounced $716 billion in cuts to Medicare that were part of his fiscal 2013 budget.
That assertion helps strengthen an attack line on President Obama’s health reform law that had been partially undermined by the details of Ryan’s controversial budget proposal. In the interview, the House member from Wisconsin said he now favors overturning the health reform law in its entirety, including its budget-saving measures.
“I am on the Romney ticket,” Ryan told Fox’s Brit Hume. "And what Mitt Romney is proposing is to repeal all of 'Obamacare.' And in the House, repeatedly, I have voted with that position. I support that position. I'm pleased to support the position of getting rid of every piece of Obamacare, including the cuts to Medicare which are used to pay for Obamacare.”
Romney has been hammering Obama for cutting more than $700 billion from the Medicare program, arguing that his own plan, which would partially privatize the program in 10 years, will better guarantee benefits for current retirees. On Tuesday, his campaign released an ad suggesting that Obama was stealing from current beneficiaries to pay for new programs.
The Obama health reform law achieves its savings by reducing pay increases to hospitals and payments to insurance companies that administer Medicare Advantage plans, among other changes, though they would not cut any benefits.
That attack line had been blunted by the details of Ryan’s budget, which would have overturned the health reform law but kept those budget cuts in place. Though Romney never specifically endorsed those cuts, he did express his approval of the Ryan budget overall. That has allowed the Obama campaign to peg him as hypocritical for challenging Obama on the Medicare cuts.
“Mitt Romney’s ad is dishonest and hypocritical,” said Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith on Tuesday. "The savings his ad attacks do not cut a single guaranteed Medicare benefit, and Mitt Romney embraced the very same savings when he promised he’d sign Paul Ryan’s budget.”
Now, however, that critique may be harder to make stick.
Ryan and Romney have been working hard to link the cuts to the Medicare program to coverage expansions in other parts of the health reform law. That makes sense, because seniors, a key Republican voting block, tend to dislike the health reform law and resist any changes to the Medicare program.
“Here's the issue: What President Obama is trying to do with his Medicare plan is he's trying to count a dollar twice,” Ryan said. “He's trying to suggest that these Medicare cuts can help Medicare. It doesn't, because he is taking those dollars from Medicare to spend on Obamacare.”
Ryan’s critique underlines a quirk in how the Congressional Budget Office considers cuts to future Medicare spending. Though the Medicare trustees and actuaries apply any future spending cuts to their projections for the Medicare trust fund, CBO also counts those cuts as savings against the current budget baseline.
Those accounting rules expose both sides to critiques that any Medicare cuts will be used to fund other budget priorities. Obama’s campaign has been saying that Romney and Ryan want to cut Medicare in order to finance tax cuts for the rich, using similar logic.
Ryan repeated his conviction that he thinks the Medicare issue can be a winner for his party in the face of repeated Democratic attacks that the GOP would harm the program.
"President Obama is actually damaging Medicare for current seniors," he said. "It's irrefutable. And that's why I think this is a debate we want to have, and that's a debate we're going to win.”
Obama spokesman Danny Kanner, however, said Ryan's appearance on Fox News "proved one thing: he’s not ready for primetime. First, he attacked the president for the very same Medicare savings that he includes in his own budget. In the same breath, he falsely claimed that the Romney-Ryan budget protects Medicare – in fact, their plan would end Medicare as we know it, leaving seniors with nothing but a voucher in place of the guaranteed benefits they rely on today."