House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan could be on the verge of reigniting another political firestorm over Medicare.
As part of his budget plan for next year, Ryan is considering dramatic changes to the entitlement program including possibly changing the plan for people who are currently 57 and older, according to several House Republican sources. That would be a shift from a repeated GOP pledge to wall off people who are now 55 and older from any impact of new reforms.
Ryan, whose leadership on fiscal issues elevated his profile and helped lead to his selection as Mitt Romney's running mate in last year's presidential election, is rolling out his budget next week. The Budget chairman and GOP leaders have held listening sessions with rank and file members to outline the need for significant spending cuts and entitlement reforms. While those discussions haven't included details, and aides and members caution no final decisions on the budget blueprint have been made, the Medicare proposals being considered include a range of ages.
But this move represents a shift for Ryan and GOP leaders, who as recently as the 2012 campaign stressed that his plan did not include any changes for Americans who are now 55 or older.
Republicans have proposed overhauling Medicare and in ten years shifting it from a government-run program to one that would give seniors support to help pay for private health care coverage.
GOP Rep. Luke Messer, R-Indiana, a freshman who sits on the Budget Committee said it's fair to say some changes to what Ryan proposed two years ago are being discussed, including the age when reforms would start.
Messer said he was open to allowing Medicare reforms to apply to those now 57 and older, arguing that it's critical for the long term health of the program.
"Frankly in the near term changing that number does very little to balance the budget in ten years, but I think it's important because it has the recognition that if we do nothing for six years we will not be able to save these programs without making changes for folks that are older than 55," Messer told CNN.
The Indiana Republican conceded that there is a split within GOP ranks on the issue, and some do not want to be accused of reversing themselves on a policy they backed two years ago. But Messer maintained it was not going back because Congress failed to act then, and the program is in "even more dire danger."
"We're talking about the same people who are now two years older and nothing was done so, it 's the same folks who now may have their benefits and expenditures impacted," Messer said.
House conservatives pressed House Speaker John Boehner and other top GOP leaders for bolder action on deficit reduction at the annual Republican retreat in January. Shortly after that meeting House GOP leaders pledged that they would advance a budget that would balance in ten years. But that is a more aggressive timetable than was in Ryan's budget blueprint last year, which took more than 25 years to bring the federal budget into balance. And some GOP members say that new goal is making it harder for Ryan to reach that balance without more significant entitlement changes.
Ryan declined to answer questions about his plan as he left the weekly meeting of House Republican members on Tuesday morning, telling reporters, "You guys will see what we're doing next week."
Ryan's Budget Committee spokesman also declined to answer specific questions about the upcoming plan, but said in a written statement, "With respect to Medicare, House Republicans will again put forward a real solution to protect and strengthen Medicare for current seniors and future generations. His reforms ensure no changes for those in or near retirement, a sharp contrast to the real harm inflicted on seniors by the President's health-care law. It will be interesting to see how Senate Democrats respond to the critical need to reform Medicare. After nearly four years without a budget, will leading Senate Democrats remain complicit in the looming bankruptcy of Medicare?"
But Ryan's proposal, or the lack of clarity on who might be covered by potential entitlement changes, is causing some of his GOP colleagues some heartburn.
Idaho Republican Rep Mike Simpson, a former member of the Budget Committee, said he's still waiting for more details on how the Medicare reforms will work, but said he's heard some members express concerns about doing an about face on their pledge to voters that they would not make any changes in benefits for those 55 years and older.
"They've been home telling their constituents this for the last two or three years. To now all of the sudden change it -- it's problematic," Simpson said.
Rep Peter King, R-New York, said on Tuesday, "I have concerns."
King didn't believe Ryan had settled on what the age cut off would be. But the New York Republican said he's worried "if we change the commitment we made several years ago that it would not go above a certain age."
Asked if it was a mistake for GOP leaders to pledge to balance the budget within 10 years, King said, "I don't know what's sacred about 10 years, but let's see what the numbers are."
Boehner brushed off a question about fellow Republicans raising red flags about Ryan's proposal, punting the responsibility to Ryan and the Budget Committee, and expressing confidence they would find agreement.
"I think we'll let them work it out and we'll see what outcome they get," Boehner said.
But as he predicted that the House would pass a short term government spending measure this week that would keep federal agencies funded through end of September, Boehner alluded to the bigger fight ahead on the budget.
"I'm hopeful that the President, Senate Democrats will get serious about moving a bill that solves, begins to solve our long term spending problem," he said.
Democrats, who wielded the Medicare issue against Republicans in the last election and believe it helped their 2012 election results, immediately pounced at the news that Medicare changes could affect older Americans.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, referring to GOP proposal, said "they try to color it up a bit, put some lipstick on it, but at the end of the day what they're essentially saying is they're getting rid of the guarantee that Americans have become accustomed to after paying for their Medicare. These earned benefits will no longer be guaranteed."