THE Republican majority in the House of Representatives called its budget proposal “The path to prosperity: A blueprint for American renewal”. Whether it would live up to that billing we will never know, as Democratic opposition in the Senate will prevent it from being enacted. But by recanting on the budget deal they struck with the Democrats last year, and by renewing pledges to slash spending and overhaul popular government programmes, the Republicans have certainly paved the path to partisan rancour and Democratic attack ads.
The plan, unveiled on March 20th by Paul Ryan, the chairman of the Budget Committee, is similar to the one he put forward last year. It aims to cut spending by more than $5 trillion over the next decade relative to the budget the president proposed last month. That would bring the deficit to below 2% of GDP by 2015, and the budget into balance by around 2040.
The proposal would also dramatically cut taxes for businesses and individuals—a move it claims could be paid for by eliminating exemptions and deductions. It also rehashes Mr Ryan’s scheme to stop the government paying directly for health care for the elderly via Medicare, and instead hand out that could be used to buy private insurance. But to ease suspicions that this is simply a ruse to foist rising costs on blameless grannies, Mr Ryan now says that the vouchers could be used to remain in a version of the current Medicare programme; this, however, may cost people money if competition from private providers succeeds in undercutting Medicare.
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office calculates that the proposed spending cuts are even more swingeing this time round. Only Social Security (the public pension scheme) would remain on its present trajectory. The projected growth in Medicare would be crimped, while outlays on Medicaid, the government health-care scheme for the poor, would be halved as a share of GDP by 2050. Everything else (such as foreign aid, assistance to veterans and federal funding for schools and roads) would be cut by over two-thirds.
Democrats are delighted that Mr Ryan is returning to the limb he put his party out on last year, when House Republicans overwhelmingly backed his budget proposal only to be lambasted by Democrats for “ending Medicare as we know it” and prioritising tax cuts for the rich over benefits for the poor. A Democrat who stuck to that script won a by-election in what had long been a safe Republican seat in upstate New York last year. The party has already launched a similar campaign this year, denouncing the Republicans’ “Medicare madness”. Republicans, for their part, insist that their forthright stance, in contrast to the Senate Democrats’ failure to pass a budget for the past three years, will earn them respect from voters. Mitt Romney, the probable Republican nominee seems to agree: he has heartily endorsed Mr Ryan’s approach.
Whatever the plan’s electoral merits, it has also set off a more obscure but potentially even more significant battle within Congress. It attempts to unpick the deal sealed last year by the president, the House and the Senate to raise the limit Congress imposes on government debt in exchange for spending cuts. The Republicans are now proposing cutting $19 billion more next year than agreed. They also want to undo part of the fail-safe mechanism that was supposed to induce both parties to compromise on a scheme to reduce the deficit. If no agreement was reached, spending dear to both sides (on defence, in the Republicans’ case, and on almost everything else, in the Democrats’) was to be cut by $1.2 trillion. No deal has been reached, but Mr Ryan’s plan calls for the military cuts (alone) to be restored.
The Democrats in charge of the budgeting process in the Senate have already declared any departure from the debt-ceiling deal unacceptable. But plenty of Republicans in the House feel that Mr Ryan is not going far enough. That sets the stage for another fiscal showdown when the current fiscal year ends on October 1st, a month before elections in which all members of the House, a third of senators and the president all face the voters.