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The Budget Debate's Cast of Characters

April 7, 2011

The curtain is raised on House Republicans’ version of a fiscal year 2012 spending plan, unveiling the expected stark contrast to President Obama’s proposal. Now, the script plays out toward the October 1 start of the fiscal year. To help you keep track of the cast of key characters, and their roles, here is a program guide.

The Leading Man With a Plan: House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who came to Washington from Wisconsin as a Representative in 1998, made his name as a budget wonk since becoming the ranking member of the budget committee. His controversial Road Map To America’s Future, an alternative budget he proposed last year, made headlines and injected some serious policy into a rambunctious GOP effort to take back the House.  Now Chairman of the Budget Committee, Ryan promised to lay out an ambitious document that tackles the major drivers of deficits and debt, and in this he has succeeded, arguing that America’s very identity is dependent on adopting his sweeping reforms. But his boldness has a draw-back: Policy experts question the feasibility of some of his specific plans, and Democrats are eager to clash with the GOP over their plans to pass costs on to the elderly and the poor while cutting taxes.  Ryan will have to navigate those fights, and his caucus, as Congress grinds through the budget process this year. Whether a grand fiscal bargain is reached or not, Ryan’s proposal will set the tone for 2012 Republican presidential primaries and presents a very real contrast with proposals endorsed by Democrats and President Barack Obama.


The Steely-Eyed House Antagonist: Budget Committee ranking member Chris Van Hollen, D-Md. Van Hollen, a Democratic wunderkind elected in 2002, quickly rose through the ranks in Congress, where he too is known for his policy chops. But Van Hollen also has a political experience under his belt; he spent two cycles as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, overseeing major victories in 2008 and a major defeat in 2010. Learning, perhaps, from Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s example, he took over Democrats’ top seat on the budget committee, setting him up in direct opposition to Ryan as his colleagues seek to regain their majority. Van Hollen is ideally suited to lead the Democratic response to Ryan’s budget by casting himself as a defender of popular entitlement programs from callous GOPers, but if he fails to offer significant policy substance in answer to the hard questions about debt that Ryan poses, he will have a much harder time gaining political traction.

To Be (a hard-liner), or Not to Be? During the ongoing stalemate with the Senate over a spending plan for the remainder of fiscal 2011—and potential government shutdown—rookie House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has continually pointed to the fiscal 2012 budget as the bigger enchilada where conservative freshmen members and others can make a real impact on spending cuts, entitlements, and program changes. But whether Boehner ultimately has any more success in meeting both the political realities of negotiating a deal with the other party and the demands of his conference’s hard-liners with his negotiating approach on the fiscal 2012 budget, is a big question. Boehner has urged his troops—particularly impatient freshmen members—to act like adults in balancing their various goals with realities and necessities, such as regarding the need to raise the nation’s debt limit. But his balancing act in satisfying and keeping the troops unified in the budget deliberations ahead might hold the key to whether his grip on the speaker’s gavel will be a long-term one.

The Loyal Heir? Waiting in the Wings: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who is already trying to position himself as sort of the champion of the House Republican hard-liners (whether they see him that way, or not), is sure to continue playing the hyperactive Republican attack dog in the budget battles, even as Boehner is forced to continue his more-moderate negotiating approach. Some suggest this already has caused some friction between Boehner and his No. 2. Both sides downplay such talk, even as Cantor does at times seem to be outside of the negotiating loop in Boehner’s talks with the Senate. For Cantor, the question may be what it is, exactly, that he might be expecting to get in return, long-term, for his understudy/attack-dog role?

The Script Writer—No Improvising Please: House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers, R-Ky., once widely known as the “Prince of Pork,” has along with his 12 appropriations subcommittee chairs, or “cardinals,” received their marching orders. Now, they must pick up Ryan's budget’s lead and craft belt-tightening appropriations bills for federal agencies and programs, against the inevitable pressure from lobbyists, corporations, and others flaunting campaign dollars in return for their piece of the pie. It could get ugly. And, oh yeah, no earmarks!

La Grand Dame—Ready for Her Close-Up: Consider Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., as a somewhat self-appointed proxy for the hard-liners inside and outside of the House Republican Conference. But Bachmann's ability to influence the debate due to her cable-friendly media presence—which greatly outdistances her clout within the GOP conference—prove to be an effective sales outlet to a certain customer base for the fiscal 2012 budget plan. Bachmann memorably provided a supplementary and competing response to Ryan’s response to this year’s State of the Union address. Bachmann’s criticisms of the Ryan proposal could also make it seem more mainstream.

Ready To Rumble: Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, chairman of the Republican Study Committee is already planning to release an alternative in a few days to Ryan’s version of a budget plan. He says Ryan has great proposals, but that the RSC alternative will basically “speed-up” what Ryan wants to implement “because we think it’s important to get to balance.” He adds, “and we think it will be well-received by conservative and regular tax-paying families across the country.”

The Ever-Tortured Artist: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., will enter the stage with the aim of protecting vulnerable Senate Democrats whose seats go up for election in 2012. It’s a do-or-die task that could determine whether he and his party will remain in control of the chamber, and one in which he will be forced to gauge the political cost-benefits of standing in the way of House Republicans' demands.

Free at Last to Act … Freely? Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., is one of the Democratic Party’s most effective fiscal hawks. It also might help that he’s retiring in 2012, freeing him up to make the kind of touchy policy decisions that incumbents facing reelection are generally loathe to make. He also provides Democrats with an intellectual counterweight against House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Conrad has pledged to use his final months in office to find solutions to the nation’s fiscal woes. While he will help steer the budget through the Senate, he is also a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Six” working on a wide-ranging effort to rein in the budget deficit.

The Crafty Veteran: Senate Appropriations Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, is an 86-year-old World War II hero, who served in the House under legendary Speaker Sam Rayburn, and who for decades has been among the Senate’s top earmarkers. He treats the anti-earmark, deficit-cutting enthusiasm of the current Congress like a passing fad. Inouye is willing to help Reid and President Obama, but is, according to several Democratic aides, uninterested in the kind of cutting that Democrats now see as necessary. Leadership staffers groused during the CR fight that Inouye’s reluctance to embrace real cuts limited Democratic efforts and limited the role the Appropriations Committee played in the process. Inouye may be a reluctant participant, but will not be a leader in the budget-cutting efforts.

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