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Senate Republicans are abandoning Paul Ryan’s budget

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), center, has said he wants a budget with fewer words.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), center, has said he wants a budget with fewer words.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
  1. Senate Republicans are shying away from the controversial Ryan budget, instead opting to introduce a plan that outlines the size of budget cuts — but not how, exactly, they would change entitlement programs like Medicare.
  2. Top Republicans say this is about process: leadership wants the Senate Finance Committee, which typically handles Medicare policy, to come up with a plan for achieving cuts.
  3. A lack of specifics also likely insulates Republicans from political attacks moving into 2016 — and makes it harder for outside groups to analyze their plans.

What do Senate Republicans want? "Less words" in a new budget.

Senate Republicans want to move forward a more politically palatable budget — a plan that will be intentionally light on words and heavy on numbers.

The Hill reported Sunday that top Republicans, like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and budget committee member Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), want to move forward with a Medicare and Medicaid budget plan that sets spending targets — but doesn't define how, exactly, the party would cut the program to get there.

This is really different from the approach House Republicans, led by then–budget chair Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), have taken for the past few years. The Ryan budget has spelled out in great detail how it would overhaul Medicare, moving to a premium support system where seniors would get a lump sum of money to purchase their coverage.

This is the key point from Grassley:

"From the standpoint of a budget, the less words of the English language you use, the better off you are," said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a senior member of the Budget panel.

When it comes to saving money in Medicare and Medicaid, Grassley said it’s preferable to "just have figures in there" instead of spelling out specific reforms, as Ryan did.

An anonymous Republican senator told the Hill this is all about process: that the Budget Committee doesn't have the power to propose specific reforms — that power lies with the Senate Finance Committee, which generally sets Medicare policy.

Regardless of whether that's true, the decision to steer away from specific proposals for cutting Medicare is probably good politics. The Ryan budget has gotten hammered, year after year, for how it would raise costs for seniors. His proposal was easy for political groups and nonprofits to analyze. The Kaiser Family Foundation used Ryan's proposals, for example, to estimate that 27 percent of seniors would end up spending an additional $100 per month on their Medicare benefits. Liberal outlets described it as a "budget to slash Medicare" and to "gut" the program.

There are literally dozens of ways to reform Medicare. (One recent report detailed 150 different ideas that have turned up in Washington as of late.) There are ideas about raising the eligibility age or moving to paying providers for value, or, as Ryan proposes, creating a more privatized option.

When your policy proposal is no policy at all— when it doesn't look at the list of 150 and say, "That one!" — it's impossible for outside groups to analyze. Nobody will be able to tell you if the Senate Republican budget plan will cost seniors more or less or about the same, because all the health-care wonks will just be staring at a set of numbers with no explanation beside them.

This might help explain why, heading into the 2016 election, Senate Republicans want to use as few words as possible in setting their entitlement policies — and simply let the numbers do the talking.