Wednesday, June 15, 2011

When Compromise Is ‘Going Soft’

Douglas Graham/Roll Call

Tea party activists are urging their members to write lawmakers and tell them to insist on a debt limit increase that’s paired with significant spending cuts. But some worry that if they aren’t flexible, Congressional conservatives may be left out of a final deal.  Tea party activists are urging House Members to resist compromise in the debt limit debate, but too firm a stance by the conservative faction could marginalize the group rather than strengthen it when a final deal is cut. Conservatives saw this happen in the continuing resolution debate, when House GOP freshmen insisted on major spending cuts that ultimately were whittled down to satisfy Democrats in the Senate and White House. Outside groups are hoping to avoid a repeat of that March defeat, but some Members are trying to manage conservative expectations on the terms for raising the federal debt limit. "There's no doubt when you control one of the three levers of government it's very difficult to get 100 percent of what you want," Rep. Tim Scott said. "So to sell anyone on the fact that you're going to end up with all that you want or most of what you want, you're probably selling a bill of goods." The South Carolina Republican said he learned his lesson during the CR debate, when conservatives pushed for $100 billion in spending cuts and ultimately had to settle for $38.5 billion in a deal brokered by Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Scott ultimately voted for the deal, but 54 of his GOP colleagues didn't because they said the cuts weren't deep enough. The CR easily passed the House, thanks to the support of 85 Democrats. The lesson, according to Scott: "Don't promise $100 billion." But not all of Scott's freshman colleagues are taking the same moderating tone. Rep. Joe Walsh, a tea party favorite from suburban Chicago, said any debt limit deal should include a balanced budget amendment. The first-term Republican said his lesson from the CR deal, which he voted against, is just the opposite of what Scott learned. For Walsh, the message from his constituents was that they "don't want us at all to get soft on this one." "So we will push as hard as we can to get this town serious about spending," Walsh said in an interview. "And if voting not to raise the debt ceiling will do it, speaking for myself, I won't do it." Walsh predicted "there will be enough fiscally conservative Republicans" in the Conference to block a deal that doesn't sufficiently reduce spending in exchange for raising the debt limit, and grass-roots organizations throughout the country are working overtime to make sure that faction sticks together as bipartisan negotiations continue in the lead-up to the Aug. 2 deadline when the government is expected to begin defaulting on its debt payments. The challenge for Walsh and many of his more conservative colleagues is that if they won't compromise at all, House leaders may have to search for votes in other places. "Their refusal to consider a debt limit increase is bringing us to the negotiating table when we wouldn't otherwise have a seat," one Democratic aide said. "They'll keep their pride, but the eventual deal will be much weaker than the one they want." Tea party leaders maintain they are in no mood to compromise. Instead, they have focused on publicly opposing any increase. The Our Country Deserves Better political action committee, which backs Tea Party Express, launched a TV ad campaign to oppose the increase. As Chairwoman Amy Kremer put it, "Our message has not only been no, but hell no."
Grassfire Nation, whose online membership of 1.8 million includes many tea partyers, has started a petition to the same end. And Mark Meckler, a national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, had strong words for Washington, D.C., politicians who might waver on a debt limit vote. "We think Congress has spent decades acting like petulant teenagers, and we need to cut them off from the credit card," Meckler said. With pressure from outside groups, even those lawmakers who do not abide by the tea party agenda are working to keep from raising the movement's ire. Rep. Trey Gowdy, who was not a tea party candidate last year but represents a South Carolina district with a strong presence, has taken care to engage those groups on controversial issues such as reauthorizing the USA PATRIOT Act. "I've never got the sense that they require me to be right 100 percent of the time," said Gowdy, a first-term Republican. "I think what they'd require is consistency with the platform with which you ran." Similar to Scott and Gowdy, who despite their more moderate tones are nevertheless pushing for deeper cuts in exchange for their support for a debt limit increase, some groups have also taken positions that allow for some flexibility. The leaders of American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform and Let Freedom Ring recently sent a letter to Republican leaders in Congress urging them to use the debt limit increase as leverage for more spending cuts, rather than demanding any particular deal. Some activists acknowledged the odds are against them but insist they are taking the kind of principled stand that not all GOP lawmakers have this year, especially on the CR. They express frustration at seeing Republicans accept lukewarm deals and then expect praise. "From our side of the table, it's like, 'Really? Did you really just slap us across the face and call it a gift?'" said Christina Botteri, a member of the National Tea Party Federation. "We think it's a failure of vision on the part of the GOP leadership." Botteri said the tea party position has been misconstrued as impractical, charging that instead it comes from tea party members feeling like Republicans have been too soft in negotiations. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R), who is eyeing a Senate bid in his home state of Utah, noted it is a challenge to satisfy some tea party groups. "They have very high expectations because movement in this town has been so lethargic. There are people who want the budget balanced next Thursday. That's probably not going to happen," Chaffetz said. "It's got to be a very major change in order for the tea party to be pleased. They had high expectations with the CR only to find out that $38 billion may not have even been $38 billion. I think they were let down on that." Scott predicted that House GOP leaders will heed the calls of the freshman class, who account for a third of the Conference and who, despite having to settle for fewer cuts in the CR, drove that number up beyond original predictions. "There is a careful balance that has to be taken into consideration," Scott said, "but at the end of the day, you have to figure out where you're willing to die and stay there."

Senate Democrats — Minus Key Players — Signal Opposition to Medicaid Overhaul

Senate Democrats announced they have enough votes to block a GOP effort to overhaul Medicaid, but the lack of support from several key players suggests that cuts to the health program for the poor could still be part of the negotiations over raising the debt limit.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV said that 41 Senate Democrats have signed letters to President Obama opposing drastic changes to Medicaid, including one that he sent with 36 others saying they would oppose federal caps on program spending.
Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he hoped the Democrats’ coalition would help set terms for Medicaid in the ongoing debt ceiling negotiations.
“We’re counting on the White House to stand firm on our shared values here,” said Rockefeller. “Medicare and Social Security have been declared off the table in deficit negotiations, but Medicaid suddenly looks like the sacrificial lamb. I say absolutely no.”
Conspicuously absent from the letters were the signatures of several Democratic leaders, including Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Finance Chairman Max Baucus of Montana and Budget Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota. Aides did not immediately explain the members’ rationale, but the omission of the leaders’ names likely means they want to preserve their flexibility. It may also indicate they believe they may have to accept some changes to Medicaid — though likely less drastic ones than recommended in the House’s fiscal 2012 budget resolution (H Con Res 34).
That resolution proposes converting the federal share of Medicaid from an entitlement for certain low-income groups into a state block grant indexed to inflation and population growth. Republicans are demanding that changes to programs like Medicare and Medicaid be part of any final deal to raise the debt ceiling.
Irwin Redlener, president of the philanthropic group Children’s Health Fund, said that both parties should agree to cut services that are unnecessary, redundant or not cost-effective.
While he said he supports preserving Medicare and Medicaid, Redlener added, “I’m also a big believer in the fact that we’re without doubt overspending in both of those programs, because we’re paying for services that are not necessary and are very, very costly without having discernable health benefits.”
Republican governors, such as Haley Barbour of Mississippi, say the block grant proposal would control federal spending and give governors flexibility to tailor the program to their states’ needs. Democrats counter that it would hurt seniors, the disabled and the poor, and shift costs onto local communities.
Redlener, also a professor at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, called the block grant proposal “short-term thinking in the extreme.”
“The consequences will be both very harmful and dangerous to individuals and ultimately have an undesirable economic impact as uninsured people flood emergency rooms,” he said.
A May poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 60 percent of Americans want to keep Medicaid as is, while 13 percent favor major cuts to the program as part of efforts to reduce federal spending.
In addition to the Rockefeller letter, four Democratic senators have sent separate letters to President Obama opposing the block grant proposal for Medicaid: Dianne Feinstein of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Mark Udall and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
Feinstein’s letter indicated that she would be open to accepting other changes to Medicaid.
“Balancing the budget by dismantling the long-standing health care program for low-income Americans is not the answer,” Feinstein wrote. “Changes to programs that serve the most vulnerable must be made with the utmost care.”
In their letter, the Colorado Democrats asked Obama to preserve the “foundational integrity” of Medicaid.
“We share your commitment to finding a comprehensive solution to our deficits. The road toward that goal will not be easy — everyone must be wiling to give a little,” the senators wrote.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

GOP Offers Alternative to Kucinich Resolution on U.S. Role in Libya

By Emily Cadei, CQ Staff
The House is set to rebuke President Obama for his handling of the conflict in Libya, but probably with toned-down language that would not hamper the U.S. role in the mission there. The Republican caucus is rallying around a resolution sponsored by Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, that would require the White House to justify its strategy on Libya within two weeks time, but would stop short of declaring the administration in violation of the 1973 War Powers Act (PL 93-148) or calling for the administration to halt its participation in the NATO-led operation. Boehner’s resolution and the alternative — a measure (H Con Res 51) sponsored by Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich, D-Ohio, calling for removal of U.S. forces from Libya — are both expected to be brought to the floor Friday. Republican leaders outlined the Speaker’s resolution (H Res 292) during a GOP conference Thursday. “I think ultimately the conference is likely to come down with the majority being in favor of Boehner,” Steve Chabot, R-Ohio, said, calling Boehner’s measure “more responsible” than the one offered by Kucinich, which demands the U.S. withdraw all forces within 15 days. What remains in question is how many members vote for both resolutions. It is unclear how much force of law either would carry, but at the very least they would put on record lawmakers’ sentiment about the U.S. role in Libya and Obama’s decision to involve the military in that nation’s conflict. Boehner issued a news release Thursday saying that his resolution “will enable members to clearly express the will of our constituents — in a responsible way that reflects our commitments to our allies and our troops.” He also warned members not to support the tougher resolution. “The Kucinich measure would have long-term consequences that are unacceptable, including a precipitous withdrawal from our role supporting our NATO allies in Libya — which could have serious consequences for our broader national security,” he said. “It would undermine our troops in harm’s way and undercut our allies who have stood by us in Afghanistan and other areas abroad. Regardless of how we got here, we cannot suddenly turn our backs on our troops and our NATO partners who have stuck by us for the last 10 years.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that she was opposed to both resolutions. “The resolutions by Speaker Boehner and Congressman Kucinich, as currently drafted, do not advance our efforts in the region and send the wrong message to our NATO partners,” she said in a news release. Kucinich’s resolution was up for a vote June 1 but was pulled from the floor at the last minute when it became apparent that a significant number of members were considering voting for it.
Irked Lawmakers
Lawmakers have become disgruntled less by the state of the conflict — now in its third month — and more by the fact that Obama did not seek their authorization, both before and since committing forces to the effort. The United States is now playing a supporting role in the NATO-led mission, which is aimed at protecting dissidents who have risen up against autocrat Muammar el-Qaddafi. “I’d certainly support the Speaker’s resolution, but what I have to figure out now is if I want to support Kucinich’s as well,” Tom Rooney, R-Pa., said after the conference. Rooney introduced his own resolution, with language very similar to Kucinich’s, but confirmed Thursday that it would not come up for a vote. Rooney said he expected most of his caucus “to support Boehner.” However, he said, there are still Republicans who” feel like the clock has run out on war powers,” referring to the law that requires that the president seek congressional authorization to maintain a fighting force in a conflict for more than 60 days. “Whether you agree with it or not, the Supreme Court hasn’t weighed in on it, so it is what we have to live by today,” Rooney said. “I think that you’re going to see a lot of people support both” resolutions, he added. Another initial backer of the Kucinich language, Dan Burton, R-Ind., said Thursday he had not made up his mind about whether he would vote for the Ohio Democrat’s measure. “The Speaker makes some very strong, valid points,” in urging the caucus to support his resolution and not Kucinich’s, Burton said. “But at the same time we’ve got to send an extremely strong message to the president that we don’t want this to ever happen again without consulting with the United States Congress first.” The administration warned Thursday about the national security consequences of demanding a withdrawal. Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates “believes that for the United States, once committed to a NATO operation, to unilaterally abandon that mission would have enormous and dangerous long-term consequences.” Freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., said that was one of the reasons he would oppose the Kucinich resolution. Kinzinger, who said he believes Libya “is in our national security interests,” worried about the impact of putting a timeline on withdrawal from Libya without consulting with the military. Rooney also acknowledged Thursday that “the 15 days might be too hasty to move out of there.” However, he added, “We’re operating at almost the 90th day.” “There’s been ample opportunity, I think, for the president to come” seek authorization from Congress before it got to this point, Rooney said. In a sign that anger at the Obama administration Libya is widespread in Congress, the House on Thursday narrowly rejected a measure that would bar any funding in the fiscal 2012 Homeland Security appropriations bill from being used to support operations in the North African country. The amendment to the measure (HR 2017) fell 208-213. Its sponsor, Brad Sherman, D-Calif., wrote in a letter to his colleagues that “The War Powers Resolution is the law of the land, and we should not facilitate or tolerate its violation, even for a purportedly worthy cause.” And Sherman said he planned to offer a similar amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill when it reaches the floor in several weeks.
Alan K. Ota contributed to this story.
First posted June 2, 2011 1:41 p.m.

Cantor Seeks to Deliver, Majority Leader insists his Debt talks are key

Tom Williams/Roll Call

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is determined his involvement in bipartisan debt limit talks won't be for naught. Despite public doubts expressed by none other than the Speaker that the group will not be able to meet the Aug. 2 deadline for raising the debt ceiling, the Virginia Republican said Thursday in an interview with Roll Call that he is playing an important role in laying the groundwork for a final deal. Cantor has a lot at stake in the negotiations, given his role as House Republicans' conservative standard-bearer in talks led by Vice President Joseph Biden. He maintained that the group has engaged in serious discussions, which have already pinpointed "well over $1 trillion" in cuts. "We've been very substantive in those discussions, trying to keep the politics out of it, because I think all of us understand the philosophical perspective we bring to the table," Cantor said. "I think they have been productive, and there's a lot of information that's being shared and a lot of potential for progress." The six-term lawmaker also continues to insist cutting Medicare remains a part of the discussion, despite calls from Senate Democrats who say reforming the entitlement program should not be a condition for raising the debt ceiling. Cutting Medicare isn't the only controversial decision under discussion. Cantor said Medicaid, non-health care mandatory programs, discretionary spending and other reforms must all be on the table. "None of it's easy when you're talking about reducing spending and changing the trajectory of a mandatory program or getting rid of it," Cantor said, adding that he believes there is a way forward by taking apart the federal budget piece by piece. Still, there is widespread acknowledgment that President Barack Obama and Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) will craft the ultimate agreement. Boehner last week cast doubt on the Biden group's ability to come to an agreement within the month, saying the slow pace of the talks threatened to create brinkmanship if they did not soon come to a resolution. Boehner also said he was ready to begin engaging directly with the White House, separate from the Biden negotiations. Cantor dismissed the notion that those talks would undercut him and said he supports higher-level discussions. "We hopefully will have the will to go ahead and force some consensus that's got to happen, but the thinking always was the Speaker and the president would have a discussion to sort of bring it all together," Cantor said. Boehner echoed Cantor's sentiments Friday, telling reporters he wants the talks to continue and that the Majority Leader has done "good work" as the House Republican's only representative at the table. In part, having Cantor engage with the bipartisan group instead of having the Speaker go it alone might be an important strategy for House Republican leaders to keep their rank and file on board with the final product. The Conference registered its displeasure earlier this year when top staff to Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reached a deal on the continuing resolution to fund the government. That agreement to cut $38.5 billion was met with broad criticism from conservatives in the House who felt it did not sufficiently cut spending and was crafted without their input. The House had passed a bill that cut $60 billion. "We've been pretty deliberate putting attention and focus on it so I can go to the Speaker and say, 'Look, here's where we are.' And we'll be able, I believe, to get to this point," Cantor said. "And if the administration and the vice president give a signal that they're willing to continue to talk along those lines, I can see a way that when the Speaker goes and talks to the president, these kinds of things will be on the table." That teamwork comes five months into the GOP's control of the House under a new roster of leaders who are still finding their way in their new roles. Cantor, long viewed as the attack dog among the leaders, acknowledged House Republicans' growing pains in their effort to change the culture of the chamber. "We're going to have an open process. We have open rules in the appropriations for the first time since 2007 ... and so a lot of this is taken getting used to," Cantor said, noting that he's gotten good feedback, even from Democrats, that there is a previously missing forum to air opinions on major legislation. Cantor was a major architect of overhauling the chamber's schedule to include more regular district work periods and in instituting strict time constraints for votes to avoid interruptions of committee business. There also have been hiccups with manning the House floor, including when House Republicans lost a major political vote on renewing the USA PATRIOT Act and when they decided to pull legislation that would overhaul unemployment insurance because Members were politically sensitive to taking a tough vote after having supported controversial changes to Medicare. House Republicans have also struggled to gain traction in their public relations campaign on job creation. Over the past several months, they've made several false starts on introducing different jobs initiatives, including Cantor's own "cut and grow" strategy and the more recent unveiling of a jobs package. Cantor defended those efforts and said GOP lawmakers have been making a consistent case on jobs. However, he acknowledged they haven't been able to capture the media's attention. "We talk about it every day," Cantor said. "You cover the back and forth of budget fights, CR fights, debt limit fights. Most people are like, 'Good lord, get this economy straight. Grow this economy.' They are looking for optimism."

Monday, May 30, 2011

Obama Signs Expiring Patriot Act Provisions with Autopen

By Niels Lesniewski and Brian Friel, CQ Staff

Minutes before the deadline for expiring provisions of the 2001 anti-terrorism law known as the Patriot Act, the White House said President Obama signed the four-year extension that the House cleared Thursday night.
The White House said the president, traveling in Europe, would direct the use of the autopen to sign the bill (S 990) into law and thereby prevent the lapsing of the anti-terrorism authorities set to expire at 12:01 a.m. Friday.
White House spokesman Nick Shapiro said the autopen would be used because the “failure to sign this legislation poses a significant risk to U.S. national security.” An autopen, frequently used by members of Congress for signing constituent correspondence and other letters, is a machine that generates a facsimile of an individual’s signature.
The Office of Legal Counsel issued an opinion in 2005 that confirms the president’s authority to direct a subordinate to put the president’s signature on an enrolled bill through autopen.

House Action

The House concurred in the Senate amendment to the bill by a vote of 250-153, with 31 Republicans joining 122 Democrats to vote against the extension. Fifty-four Democrats voted for the bill.
While Republican leaders urged their colleagues to clear the measure, calling it a “bipartisan and bicameral compromise,” opponents took time to make the case against the extension during House floor debate.
Democrats and Republicans against the measure said the death of Osama bin Laden had changed the intelligence climate and raised concerns that Congress was “once again” rushing to reauthorize the capabilities.
“These provisions were given a sunset for a reason,” argued longtime Patriot Act opponent Dennis J. Kucinich, D-Ohio.
But supporters of the measure strongly disagreed with that conclusion. House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, insisted the provisions “continue to play a vital role in America’s counterterrorism efforts.”
Smith said Congress has done the necessary oversight and held numerous hearings on the provisions. He also stressed the administration’s support for the extension.

Senate Action

Earlier Thursday, before final adoption 72-23 of a motion to concur in an unrelated House measure (S 990) with substitute language, the Senate soundly rejected two amendments offered by Rand Paul, R-Ky.
The main stumbling block to passage was an amendment offered by Paul that would have barred government investigators from using the Patriot Act’s “business record” provision to obtain the background forms that gun buyers fill out when they purchase firearms from licensed gun dealers.
Republicans objected to the amendment, Paul said earlier in the day. Though the Senate often passes gun-rights measures, this one was easily defeated when the Senate voted to table it, 85-10. Montanans Max Baucus and Jon Tester were the only Democrats to support the amendment. The National Rifle Association (NRA) announced concerns with the amendment on Thursday. But the group took a neutral position on the vote, meaning it will not be used to rank senators in the group’s upcoming vote studies.
By a vote of 91-4, the Senate tabled, and thus killed, another Paul amendment that would restrict the collection of suspicious activity reports to requests from law enforcement.
The overall measure would grant a four-year extension on provisions that allow the government to seek orders from a special court for “any tangible thing” related to a terrorism probe; to obtain roving wiretaps on suspected terrorists who switch modes of communication; and to apply to a special court for surveillance orders on “lone wolf” terrorists who are not connected to any organization.
The Obama administration issued a statement in support of the Senate-passed measure Thursday.
The Senate voted 79-18 earlier Thursday to limit debate on the compromise extension measure. The language was agreed to last week by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the top Republican in each chamber — House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. wrote to Reid and McConnell on Wednesday warning of the security risks associated with delaying the extension of the three provisions.
“Should the authority to use these critical intelligence tools expire, our nation’s intelligence and law enforcement professionals will have less capability than they have today to detect and thwart terrorist plots against our homeland and our interests abroad,” Clapper wrote.

Other Amendments Set Aside

While much of the focus had been on a disagreement over Paul’s amendments, critics of the Patriot Act (PL 107-56) on the Democratic side had sought consideration of other amendments.
Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., pressed throughout Thursday for consideration of his amendment restricting government surveillance powers, which was based on a measure (S 193) his committee approved earlier this year. Leahy ultimately relented after McConnell objected to a vote on the amendment.
Intelligence Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she opposed Paul’s gun amendment but also said other senators were likely skittish about voting on it.
“Essentially, you’re saying you can’t get business records of terrorists who are buying guns, which is ridiculous,” Feinstein said. “I think people are concerned with how the NRA scores the vote. I’m not.”
On a separate amendment, Democrats Ron Wyden of Oregon and Mark Udall of Colorado wanted to make public the government’s legal interpretation of Patriot Act authorities. “There are two Patriot Acts in America,” Wyden said. “There is the one that people read and it’s in front of them and say this is the text of it. And then there is the secret interpretation of the law.”
Wyden and Udall dropped that amendment in return for a pledge from Feinstein to take up the matter in the Intelligence Committee. Reid also said he would allow a vote later in the year on the amendment if Wyden and Udall were unsatisfied with the Intelligence Committee’s handling of the matter.
Frances Symes contributed to this story.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Obama’s Speech on Middle East and North Africa

THE PRESIDENT:  Thank you.  Thank you.  (Applause.)  Thank you very much.  Thank you.  Please, have a seat.  Thank you very much.  I want to begin by thanking Hillary Clinton, who has traveled so much these last six months that she is approaching a new landmark -- one million frequent flyer miles.  (Laughter.)  I count on Hillary every single day, and I believe that she will go down as one of the finest Secretaries of State in our nation’s history.
The State Department is a fitting venue to mark a new chapter in American diplomacy.  For six months, we have witnessed an extraordinary change taking place in the Middle East and North Africa.  Square by square, town by town, country by country, the people have risen up to demand their basic human rights.  Two leaders have stepped aside.  More may follow.  And though these countries may be a great distance from our shores, we know that our own future is bound to this region by the forces of economics and security, by history and by faith.
Today, I want to talk about this change -- the forces that are driving it and how we can respond in a way that advances our values and strengthens our security.
Now, already, we’ve done much to shift our foreign policy following a decade defined by two costly conflicts.  After years of war in Iraq, we’ve removed 100,000 American troops and ended our combat mission there.  In Afghanistan, we’ve broken the Taliban’s momentum, and this July we will begin to bring our troops home and continue a transition to Afghan lead.  And after years of war against al Qaeda and its affiliates, we have dealt al Qaeda a huge blow by killing its leader, Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden was no martyr.  He was a mass murderer who offered a message of hate –- an insistence that Muslims had to take up arms against the West, and that violence against men, women and children was the only path to change.  He rejected democracy and individual rights for Muslims in favor of violent extremism; his agenda focused on what he could destroy -– not what he could build.
Bin Laden and his murderous vision won some adherents.  But even before his death, al Qaeda was losing its struggle for relevance, as the overwhelming majority of people saw that the slaughter of innocents did not answer their cries for a better life.  By the time we found bin Laden, al Qaeda’s agenda had come to be seen by the vast majority of the region as a dead end, and the people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands.
That story of self-determination began six months ago in Tunisia.  On December 17th, a young vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi was devastated when a police officer confiscated his cart.  This was not unique.  It’s the same kind of humiliation that takes place every day in many parts of the world -– the relentless tyranny of governments that deny their citizens dignity.  Only this time, something different happened.  After local officials refused to hear his complaints, this young man, who had never been particularly active in politics, went to the headquarters of the provincial government, doused himself in fuel, and lit himself on fire.
There are times in the course of history when the actions of ordinary citizens spark movements for change because they speak to a longing for freedom that has been building up for years.  In America, think of the defiance of those patriots in Boston who refused to pay taxes to a King, or the dignity of Rosa Parks as she sat courageously in her seat.  So it was in Tunisia, as that vendor’s act of desperation tapped into the frustration felt throughout the country.  Hundreds of protesters took to the streets, then thousands.  And in the face of batons and sometimes bullets, they refused to go home –- day after day, week after week -- until a dictator of more than two decades finally left power.
The story of this revolution, and the ones that followed, should not have come as a surprise.  The nations of the Middle East and North Africa won their independence long ago, but in too many places their people did not.  In too many countries, power has been concentrated in the hands of a few.  In too many countries, a citizen like that young vendor had nowhere to turn  -– no honest judiciary to hear his case; no independent media to give him voice; no credible political party to represent his views; no free and fair election where he could choose his leader.
And this lack of self-determination –- the chance to make your life what you will –- has applied to the region’s economy as well.  Yes, some nations are blessed with wealth in oil and gas, and that has led to pockets of prosperity.  But in a global economy based on knowledge, based on innovation, no development strategy can be based solely upon what comes out of the ground. Nor can people reach their potential when you cannot start a business without paying a bribe.
In the face of these challenges, too many leaders in the region tried to direct their people’s grievances elsewhere.  The West was blamed as the source of all ills, a half-century after the end of colonialism.  Antagonism toward Israel became the only acceptable outlet for political expression.  Divisions of tribe, ethnicity and religious sect were manipulated as a means of holding on to power, or taking it away from somebody else.
But the events of the past six months show us that strategies of repression and strategies of diversion will not work anymore.  Satellite television and the Internet provide a window into the wider world -– a world of astonishing progress in places like India and Indonesia and Brazil.  Cell phones and social networks allow young people to connect and organize like never before.  And so a new generation has emerged.  And their voices tell us that change cannot be denied.
In Cairo, we heard the voice of the young mother who said, “It’s like I can finally breathe fresh air for the first time.” 
In Sanaa, we heard the students who chanted, “The night must come to an end.”
In Benghazi, we heard the engineer who said, “Our words are free now.  It’s a feeling you can’t explain.”
In Damascus, we heard the young man who said, “After the first yelling, the first shout, you feel dignity.” 
Those shouts of human dignity are being heard across the region.  And through the moral force of nonviolence, the people of the region have achieved more change in six months than terrorists have accomplished in decades.
Of course, change of this magnitude does not come easily.  In our day and age -– a time of 24-hour news cycles and constant communication –- people expect the transformation of the region to be resolved in a matter of weeks.  But it will be years before this story reaches its end.  Along the way, there will be good days and there will bad days.  In some places, change will be swift; in others, gradual.  And as we’ve already seen, calls for change may give way, in some cases, to fierce contests for power.
The question before us is what role America will play as this story unfolds.  For decades, the United States has pursued a set of core interests in the region:  countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.
We will continue to do these things, with the firm belief that America’s interests are not hostile to people’s hopes; they’re essential to them.  We believe that no one benefits from a nuclear arms race in the region, or al Qaeda’s brutal attacks.  We believe people everywhere would see their economies crippled by a cut-off in energy supplies.  As we did in the Gulf War, we will not tolerate aggression across borders, and we will keep our commitments to friends and partners.
Yet we must acknowledge that a strategy based solely upon the narrow pursuit of these interests will not fill an empty stomach or allow someone to speak their mind.  Moreover, failure to speak to the broader aspirations of ordinary people will only feed the suspicion that has festered for years that the United States pursues our interests at their expense.  Given that this mistrust runs both ways –- as Americans have been seared by hostage-taking and violent rhetoric and terrorist attacks that have killed thousands of our citizens -– a failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and the Arab world.
And that’s why, two years ago in Cairo, I began to broaden our engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect.  I believed then -– and I believe now -– that we have a stake not just in the stability of nations, but in the self-determination of individuals.  The status quo is not sustainable.  Societies held together by fear and repression may offer the illusion of stability for a time, but they are built upon fault lines that will eventually tear asunder.
So we face a historic opportunity.  We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator.  There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity.  Yes, there will be perils that accompany this moment of promise.  But after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.
Of course, as we do, we must proceed with a sense of humility.  It’s not America that put people into the streets of Tunis or Cairo -– it was the people themselves who launched these movements, and it’s the people themselves that must ultimately determine their outcome. 
Not every country will follow our particular form of representative democracy, and there will be times when our short-term interests don’t align perfectly with our long-term vision for the region.  But we can, and we will, speak out for a set of core principles –- principles that have guided our response to the events over the past six months:
The United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region.  (Applause.)  
The United States supports a set of universal rights.  And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders  -– whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran.
And we support political and economic reform in the Middle East and North Africa that can meet the legitimate aspirations of ordinary people throughout the region.
Our support for these principles is not a secondary interest.  Today I want to make it clear that it is a top priority that must be translated into concrete actions, and supported by all of the diplomatic, economic and strategic tools at our disposal.
Let me be specific.  First, it will be the policy of the United States to promote reform across the region, and to support transitions to democracy.  That effort begins in Egypt and Tunisia, where the stakes are high -– as Tunisia was at the vanguard of this democratic wave, and Egypt is both a longstanding partner and the Arab world’s largest nation.  Both nations can set a strong example through free and fair elections, a vibrant civil society, accountable and effective democratic institutions, and responsible regional leadership.  But our support must also extend to nations where transitions have yet to take place.
Unfortunately, in too many countries, calls for change have thus far been answered by violence.  The most extreme example is Libya, where Muammar Qaddafi launched a war against his own people, promising to hunt them down like rats.  As I said when the United States joined an international coalition to intervene, we cannot prevent every injustice perpetrated by a regime against its people, and we have learned from our experience in Iraq just how costly and difficult it is to try to impose regime change by force -– no matter how well-intentioned it may be.
But in Libya, we saw the prospect of imminent massacre, we had a mandate for action, and heard the Libyan people’s call for help.  Had we not acted along with our NATO allies and regional coalition partners, thousands would have been killed.  The message would have been clear:  Keep power by killing as many people as it takes.  Now, time is working against Qaddafi. He does not have control over his country.  The opposition has organized a legitimate and credible Interim Council.  And when Qaddafi inevitably leaves or is forced from power, decades of provocation will come to an end, and the transition to a democratic Libya can proceed.
While Libya has faced violence on the greatest scale, it’s not the only place where leaders have turned to repression to remain in power.  Most recently, the Syrian regime has chosen the path of murder and the mass arrests of its citizens.  The United States has condemned these actions, and working with the international community we have stepped up our sanctions on the Syrian regime –- including sanctions announced yesterday on President Assad and those around him.
The Syrian people have shown their courage in demanding a transition to democracy.  President Assad now has a choice:  He can lead that transition, or get out of the way.  The Syrian government must stop shooting demonstrators and allow peaceful protests.  It must release political prisoners and stop unjust arrests.  It must allow human rights monitors to have access to cities like Dara’a; and start a serious dialogue to advance a democratic transition.  Otherwise, President Assad and his regime will continue to be challenged from within and will continue to be isolated abroad.
So far, Syria has followed its Iranian ally, seeking assistance from Tehran in the tactics of suppression.  And this speaks to the hypocrisy of the Iranian regime, which says it stand for the rights of protesters abroad, yet represses its own people at home.  Let’s remember that the first peaceful protests in the region were in the streets of Tehran, where the government brutalized women and men, and threw innocent people into jail.  We still hear the chants echo from the rooftops of Tehran.  The image of a young woman dying in the streets is still seared in our memory.  And we will continue to insist that the Iranian people deserve their universal rights, and a government that does not smother their aspirations.
Now, our opposition to Iran’s intolerance and Iran’s repressive measures, as well as its illicit nuclear program and its support of terror, is well known.  But if America is to be credible, we must acknowledge that at times our friends in the region have not all reacted to the demands for consistent change -- with change that’s consistent with the principles that I’ve outlined today.  That’s true in Yemen, where President Saleh needs to follow through on his commitment to transfer power.  And that’s true today in Bahrain.
Bahrain is a longstanding partner, and we are committed to its security.  We recognize that Iran has tried to take advantage of the turmoil there, and that the Bahraini government has a legitimate interest in the rule of law. 
Nevertheless, we have insisted both publicly and privately that mass arrests and brute force are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens, and we will -- and such steps will not make legitimate calls for reform go away.  The only way forward is for the government and opposition to engage in a dialogue, and you can’t have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail.  (Applause.)  The government must create the conditions for dialogue, and the opposition must participate to forge a just future for all Bahrainis.
Indeed, one of the broader lessons to be drawn from this period is that sectarian divides need not lead to conflict.  In Iraq, we see the promise of a multiethnic, multisectarian democracy.  The Iraqi people have rejected the perils of political violence in favor of a democratic process, even as they’ve taken full responsibility for their own security.  Of course, like all new democracies, they will face setbacks.  But Iraq is poised to play a key role in the region if it continues its peaceful progress.  And as they do, we will be proud to stand with them as a steadfast partner.
So in the months ahead, America must use all our influence to encourage reform in the region.  Even as we acknowledge that each country is different, we need to speak honestly about the principles that we believe in, with friend and foe alike.  Our message is simple:  If you take the risks that reform entails, you will have the full support of the United States
We must also build on our efforts to broaden our engagement beyond elites, so that we reach the people who will shape the future -– particularly young people.  We will continue to make good on the commitments that I made in Cairo -– to build networks of entrepreneurs and expand exchanges in education, to foster cooperation in science and technology, and combat disease.  Across the region, we intend to provide assistance to civil society, including those that may not be officially sanctioned, and who speak uncomfortable truths.  And we will use the technology to connect with -– and listen to –- the voices of the people.
For the fact is, real reform does not come at the ballot box alone.  Through our efforts we must support those basic rights to speak your mind and access information.  We will support open access to the Internet, and the right of journalists to be heard -– whether it’s a big news organization or a lone blogger.  In the 21st century, information is power, the truth cannot be hidden, and the legitimacy of governments will ultimately depend on active and informed citizens.
Such open discourse is important even if what is said does not square with our worldview.  Let me be clear, America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard, even if we disagree with them.  And sometimes we profoundly disagree with them.
We look forward to working with all who embrace genuine and inclusive democracy.  What we will oppose is an attempt by any group to restrict the rights of others, and to hold power through coercion and not consent.  Because democracy depends not only on elections, but also strong and accountable institutions, and the respect for the rights of minorities.
Such tolerance is particularly important when it comes to religion.  In
Tahrir Square
, we heard Egyptians from all walks of life chant, “Muslims, Christians, we are one.”  America will work to see that this spirit prevails -– that all faiths are respected, and that bridges are built among them.  In a region that was the birthplace of three world religions, intolerance can lead only to suffering and stagnation.  And for this season of change to succeed, Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo, just as Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain.
What is true for religious minorities is also true when it comes to the rights of women.  History shows that countries are more prosperous and more peaceful when women are empowered.  And that’s why we will continue to insist that universal rights apply to women as well as men -– by focusing assistance on child and maternal health; by helping women to teach, or start a business; by standing up for the right of women to have their voices heard, and to run for office.  The region will never reach its full potential when more than half of its population is prevented from achieving their full potential.  (Applause.)
Now, even as we promote political reform, even as we promote human rights in the region, our efforts can’t stop there.  So the second way that we must support positive change in the region is through our efforts to advance economic development for nations that are transitioning to democracy. 
After all, politics alone has not put protesters into the streets.  The tipping point for so many people is the more constant concern of putting food on the table and providing for a family.  Too many people in the region wake up with few expectations other than making it through the day, perhaps hoping that their luck will change.  Throughout the region, many young people have a solid education, but closed economies leave them unable to find a job.  Entrepreneurs are brimming with ideas, but corruption leaves them unable to profit from those ideas. 
The greatest untapped resource in the Middle East and North Africa is the talent of its people.  In the recent protests, we see that talent on display, as people harness technology to move the world.  It’s no coincidence that one of the leaders of
Tahrir Square
was an executive for Google.  That energy now needs to be channeled, in country after country, so that economic growth can solidify the accomplishments of the street.  For just as democratic revolutions can be triggered by a lack of individual opportunity, successful democratic transitions depend upon an expansion of growth and broad-based prosperity.
So, drawing from what we’ve learned around the world, we think it’s important to focus on trade, not just aid; on investment, not just assistance.  The goal must be a model in which protectionism gives way to openness, the reigns of commerce pass from the few to the many, and the economy generates jobs for the young.  America’s support for democracy will therefore be based on ensuring financial stability, promoting reform, and integrating competitive markets with each other and the global economy.  And we’re going to start with Tunisia and Egypt.
First, we’ve asked the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to present a plan at next week’s G8 summit for what needs to be done to stabilize and modernize the economies of Tunisia and Egypt.  Together, we must help them recover from the disruptions of their democratic upheaval, and support the governments that will be elected later this year.  And we are urging other countries to help Egypt and Tunisia meet its near-term financial needs.
Second, we do not want a democratic Egypt to be saddled by the debts of its past.  So we will relieve a democratic Egypt of up to $1 billion in debt, and work with our Egyptian partners to invest these resources to foster growth and entrepreneurship.  We will help Egypt regain access to markets by guaranteeing $1 billion in borrowing that is needed to finance infrastructure and job creation.  And we will help newly democratic governments recover assets that were stolen.
Third, we’re working with Congress to create Enterprise Funds to invest in Tunisia and Egypt.  And these will be modeled on funds that supported the transitions in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  OPIC will soon launch a $2 billion facility to support private investment across the region.  And we will work with the allies to refocus the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development so that it provides the same support for democratic transitions and economic modernization in the Middle East and North Africa as it has in Europe.
Fourth, the United States will launch a comprehensive Trade and Investment Partnership Initiative in the Middle East and North Africa.  If you take out oil exports, this entire region of over 400 million people exports roughly the same amount as Switzerland.  So we will work with the EU to facilitate more trade within the region, build on existing agreements to promote integration with U.S. and European markets, and open the door for those countries who adopt high standards of reform and trade liberalization to construct a regional trade arrangement.  And just as EU membership served as an incentive for reform in Europe, so should the vision of a modern and prosperous economy create a powerful force for reform in the Middle East and North Africa.  
Prosperity also requires tearing down walls that stand in the way of progress -– the corruption of elites who steal from their people; the red tape that stops an idea from becoming a business; the patronage that distributes wealth based on tribe or sect.  We will help governments meet international obligations, and invest efforts at anti-corruption -- by working with parliamentarians who are developing reforms, and activists who use technology to increase transparency and hold government accountable.  Politics and human rights; economic reform.
Let me conclude by talking about another cornerstone of our approach to the region, and that relates to the pursuit of peace.
For decades, the conflict between Israelis and Arabs has cast a shadow over the region.  For Israelis, it has meant living with the fear that their children could be blown up on a bus or by rockets fired at their homes, as well as the pain of knowing that other children in the region are taught to hate them.  For Palestinians, it has meant suffering the humiliation of occupation, and never living in a nation of their own.  Moreover, this conflict has come with a larger cost to the Middle East, as it impedes partnerships that could bring greater security and prosperity and empowerment to ordinary people.
For over two years, my administration has worked with the parties and the international community to end this conflict, building on decades of work by previous administrations.  Yet expectations have gone unmet.  Israeli settlement activity continues.  Palestinians have walked away from talks.  The world looks at a conflict that has grinded on and on and on, and sees nothing but stalemate.  Indeed, there are those who argue that with all the change and uncertainty in the region, it is simply not possible to move forward now.
I disagree.  At a time when the people of the Middle East and North Africa are casting off the burdens of the past, the drive for a lasting peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims is more urgent than ever.  That’s certainly true for the two parties involved.
For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure.  Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection.  And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.
As for Israel, our friendship is rooted deeply in a shared history and shared values.  Our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable.  And we will stand against attempts to single it out for criticism in international forums.  But precisely because of our friendship, it’s important that we tell the truth:  The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel too must act boldly to advance a lasting peace.
The fact is, a growing number of Palestinians live west of the Jordan River.  Technology will make it harder for Israel to defend itself.  A region undergoing profound change will lead to populism in which millions of people -– not just one or two leaders -- must believe peace is possible.  The international community is tired of an endless process that never produces an outcome. The dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation.
Now, ultimately, it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to take action.  No peace can be imposed upon them -- not by the United States; not by anybody else.  But endless delay won’t make the problem go away.  What America and the international community can do is to state frankly what everyone knows -- a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples:  Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace.
So while the core issues of the conflict must be negotiated, the basis of those negotiations is clear:  a viable Palestine, a secure Israel.  The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine.  We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.  The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state. 
As for security, every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself -– by itself -– against any threat.  Provisions must also be robust enough to prevent a resurgence of terrorism, to stop the infiltration of weapons, and to provide effective border security.  The full and phased withdrawal of Israeli military forces should be coordinated with the assumption of Palestinian security responsibility in a sovereign, non-militarized state.  And the duration of this transition period must be agreed, and the effectiveness of security arrangements must be demonstrated.
These principles provide a foundation for negotiations.  Palestinians should know the territorial outlines of their state; Israelis should know that their basic security concerns will be met.  I’m aware that these steps alone will not resolve the conflict, because two wrenching and emotional issues will remain:  the future of Jerusalem, and the fate of Palestinian refugees.  But moving forward now on the basis of territory and security provides a foundation to resolve those two issues in a way that is just and fair, and that respects the rights and aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians. 
Now, let me say this:  Recognizing that negotiations need to begin with the issues of territory and security does not mean that it will be easy to come back to the table.  In particular, the recent announcement of an agreement between Fatah and Hamas raises profound and legitimate questions for Israel:  How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist?  And in the weeks and months to come, Palestinian leaders will have to provide a credible answer to that question.  Meanwhile, the United States, our Quartet partners, and the Arab states will need to continue every effort to get beyond the current impasse.
I recognize how hard this will be.  Suspicion and hostility has been passed on for generations, and at times it has hardened. But I’m convinced that the majority of Israelis and Palestinians would rather look to the future than be trapped in the past.  We see that spirit in the Israeli father whose son was killed by Hamas, who helped start an organization that brought together Israelis and Palestinians who had lost loved ones.  That father said, “I gradually realized that the only hope for progress was to recognize the face of the conflict.”  We see it in the actions of a Palestinian who lost three daughters to Israeli shells in Gaza.  “I have the right to feel angry,” he said.  “So many people were expecting me to hate.  My answer to them is I shall not hate.  Let us hope,” he said, “for tomorrow.”
That is the choice that must be made -– not simply in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but across the entire region -– a choice between hate and hope; between the shackles of the past and the promise of the future.  It’s a choice that must be made by leaders and by the people, and it’s a choice that will define the future of a region that served as the cradle of civilization and a crucible of strife.
For all the challenges that lie ahead, we see many reasons to be hopeful.  In Egypt, we see it in the efforts of young people who led protests.  In Syria, we see it in the courage of those who brave bullets while chanting, “peaceful, peaceful.”  In Benghazi, a city threatened with destruction, we see it in the courthouse square where people gather to celebrate the freedoms that they had never known.  Across the region, those rights that we take for granted are being claimed with joy by those who are prying loose the grip of an iron fist.
For the American people, the scenes of upheaval in the region may be unsettling, but the forces driving it are not unfamiliar.  Our own nation was founded through a rebellion against an empire.  Our people fought a painful Civil War that extended freedom and dignity to those who were enslaved.  And I would not be standing here today unless past generations turned to the moral force of nonviolence as a way to perfect our union –- organizing, marching, protesting peacefully together to make real those words that declared our nation:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” 
Those words must guide our response to the change that is transforming the Middle East and North Africa -– words which tell us that repression will fail, and that tyrants will fall, and that every man and woman is endowed with certain inalienable rights. 
It will not be easy.  There’s no straight line to progress, and hardship always accompanies a season of hope.  But the United States of America was founded on the belief that people should govern themselves.  And now we cannot hesitate to stand squarely on the side of those who are reaching for their rights, knowing that their success will bring about a world that is more peaceful, more stable, and more just.
Thank you very much, everybody.  (Applause.)  Thank you. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Conrad Delays Budget Markup in Deference to Ongoing Debt Talks

By Paul M. Krawzak, CQ Staff

Redrafted Plan

Conrad Delays Budget Markup in Deference to Ongoing Debt Talks

Monday, April 18, 2011

GOP expected to back Medicare shift

By CQ Staff

House Republicans appeared likely Friday to adopt a budget resolution that calls for changing Medicare into a voucher program for future seniors — a step many consider political dynamite.

Bucking conventional wisdom, GOP lawmakers are betting voters concerned about the nation’s debt may be willing to entertain changes to the popular social insurance program, especially if those affect only the next generation. Many say that by supporting House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan’s framework for the fiscal 2012 budget, they are showing they are serious about making the decisions necessary to put the nation’s fiscal house in order.

“I think the country’s ripe for looking at renegotiating the Medicare promises for folks under 55,” said K. Michael Conaway, R-Texas.

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But analysts say voting for the measure (H Con Res 34), which is as good as dead in the Democratic Senate, is a risky move for Republicans. Polls consistently show that Americans do not support transforming Medicare, and a USA Today/Gallup poll on April 11 found that two-thirds of Republicans oppose the governmemt making major changes to the program.

“The Republicans are betting the whole store on that even though people don’t like particular changes, they want something big done about the deficit — and that they’re going to stick with them even though they don’t like the cuts and changes,” said Robert Blendon, professor of health policy and political analysis in the Harvard University School of Public Health.

Democrats, meanwhile, see the Ryan plan as a political opportunity. They note that voters have rejected past GOP attempts to re-envision entitlement programs, including President George W. Bush’s attempt to change Social Security to a personal account system. And they are pledging to protect Medicare.

“No plan to end Medicare as we know it will ever pass the Senate,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y. “The debate is a debate we welcome. We’ve been waiting for it. It is a debate we will win.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., painted Ryan’s entire proposal as a way to end the program that provides health care for seniors.

“It’s a smoke screen about balancing the budget. The real goal is to kill Medicare,” Murray said.

A major part of the Republican 2010 campaign was hammering seniors with the message that Democrats were cutting Medicare and proposing “death panels” that might ration care through the health care overhaul (PL 111-148, PL 111-152).

Observers say Republicans are vulnerable to a similar line of attack in the next election. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) already has announced plans to target potentially vulnerable House GOP members. A Roll Call rating shows that more than a third of House GOP freshmen are from toss-up or Democratic-leaning districts

“If you supported that, you can expect a blizzard of mail and phone calls and emails into your district presenting you as somebody who wants to shut off the Medicare spigot,” said University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato.

Still, House Republicans said late Thursday they felt confident in voting for a budget framework that calls for changing Medicare from a defined-benefit to a defined contribution plan in 2022. The GOP resolution calls for giving seniors and the disabled an annual stipend that would be used to buy private insurance plans of their choice and would increase over time based on the rate of inflation. Critics say the plan would shift a greater share of health care costs to seniors over time.

Some Republicans think they can sell that as a way to preserve the program for future generations and to keep the country fiscally sound.

GOP freshman Lou Barletta said seniors in his district “were more upset about their grandchildren and the debt we were leaving them than the fact of the assistance for themselves.”

“They’re tough and they’ll handle the consequences to themselves, but don’t mess with their grandchildren,” added Barletta, who said his district has one of the biggest senior populations in Pennsylvania. Barletta is one of the Republicans on the DCCC’s list.

Analysts said the crucial, and most challenging, step for Republicans would be convincing voters that the current path would lead to ruin. “They have to paint the picture of a troubled status quo that is no longer sustainable. . . . The status quo is like something on a fault line and we’re having all these earthquakes, and the big one’s going to come,” said Mike Franc, vice president of government studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Franc said that Republicans also must convince voters that there would be negative consequences for future generations if they do not act.

“If they can paint that picture successfully, then they can win this,” Franc said.

Republicans also must also underscore that Ryan’s plan would not change access to fee-for-service Medicare for existing seniors, only those born in 1957 or after.

“If you say, ‘we are going to change the Medicare program to ensure its survival, but none of those changes will affect you,’ that’s a pretty powerful message,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayers.

Of course President Obama refuted many of those arguments on April 13 when he argued the nation could honor its commitments at the same time it controls costs by taking steps to wring additional savings from Medicare.

And some question whether voters will even entertain the idea of putting Medicare on the table, predicting Republicans might vote for the Ryan proposal but then walk away from some of its more far-reaching changes.

“The whole idea of converting Medicare into a kind of voucher system is highly controversial with older voters,” Sabato said. “And it’s not a group you want to take lightly, especially if you’re a Republican.”

Observers were divided on whether Obama’s defense of Medicare hurt or helped Republicans.

Blendon argued the president offered a potentially more palatable proposal. “He gave them something that sounds like a big reduction in the deficit without those kinds of changes or cuts.”

But Ayers contended Obama punted on the big issues.

“The president’s complete unwillingness to address an obvious problem comes across as a blatant lack of leadership,” the GOP pollster said.

Those on both sides agree that Ryan’s proposal all but ensures entitlements will be an important issue during the 2012 presidential campaign.

“It’s going to be difficult for a Republican nominee not to have his or her own plan to address entitlements after the Ryan initiative,” Ayers said.