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GOP rift emerges over fiscal hard line

– Anxiety is rising among House Republicans about a strategy of appeasement toward fiscal hard-liners that could require them to embrace not only the sequester, but also sharp new cuts to health and retirement programs.

Letting the sequester hit was just the first step in a pact forged in January between conservative leaders and Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to keep the government open and the nation out of default. Now comes step two: adopting a budget plan that would wipe out deficits entirely by 2023.

The strategy runs counter to warnings from prominent Republicans such as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal against becoming “the party of austerity.” Just as GOP lawmakers are tacitly endorsing sequester cuts to the Pentagon, long a sacred cow, they fear the balanced-budget goal will force them to abandon a campaign pledge not to reduce Medicare benefits for those who are now age 55 and older.

“I know a number of people who have real concerns about where this is going,” said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who said Medicare cuts targeting people as old as 58 are under discussion.

GOP leaders say the strategy has been necessary to persuade their right wing to postpone a fight over the debt ceiling until later this summer, and to support a bill on the floor this week to fund the government through the end of September. The payoff, they say, will be a budget framework that holds the promise of paying down the national debt without higher taxes.

“There’s plenty of political peril associated with this. Whether we as a conference have the stomach to look at Medicare and Social Security spending will be the make-or-break part of the deal,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a senior member of the Budget Committee. “But I think setting an ambitious goal was wise. If we can’t do it, the country can’t do it.”

Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., plans to present the new budget framework next week and put it to a vote in the House before the Easter break.

Ryan said the year-end fiscal cliff deal made balancing the budget easier than it would have been last year, when he offered a plan that wouldn’t balance until nearly 2040. Independent analysts estimate that Ryan would have to cut about $100 billion more in 2023 to balance spending and revenue.

Just as the pain of the sequester starts affecting schools, parks and airports, Democrats say, Republicans will be promoting a vision of extreme austerity that voters rejected in the 2012 presidential campaign – which featured Ryan as the GOP vice presidential nominee.

“They are going to be doubling down on a budget that slashes investment in education and infrastructure, violates important commitments to our seniors and the middle class, and keeps tax breaks for the wealthiest people in the country,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Budget Committee.

But Ryan has embraced the balanced-budget goal, telling reporters in January it marked “a very defining moment for this session of Congress and our caucus in getting a down payment on the debt crisis and averting it.”

At a January retreat in Williamsburg, Va., Ryan helped broker an agreement with Boehner on behalf of four conservative leaders: Reps. Tom Price, Jeb Hensarling, Jim Jordan and Steve Scalise. Their offer to House leaders, Scalise said: “Start with the sequester, to implement real cuts. But then go a step further and lay out a vision by presenting a budget that balances in 10 years.”

Neither Boehner nor House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., had previously championed a balanced budget. In 2010, Boehner did not include it among the planks of a detailed campaign platform that helped win control of the House. In 2011, Cantor told reporters that a balanced budget was impossible “without severely impacting the benefits that current seniors and retirees are getting now.”

But as they gathered in Williamsburg, GOP leaders were on the ropes. Boehner had been weakened during the fiscal cliff fight, and his splintered troops had been forced to swallow the first major tax increase in two decades. With a new debt-limit deadline looming in just a few weeks, House leaders were eager to unite the conference and avoid another politically damaging crisis.

Plus, the goal had become more realistic. So, after a discussion with the rank and file, the deal was struck. On Jan. 18, the four RSC leaders issued a statement: “As part of agreement, the House will work to put the country on the path to a balanced budget in 10 years. House leadership also agreed to stand by the $974 billion discretionary number that is part of the sequestration process.”

Concerns soon bubbled up about the severity of cuts needed to meet the 10-year goal.

Back at the Capitol, Rep. Charlie Dent rose during a meeting of GOP lawmakers to say he wasn’t sure he could support a balanced budget.

“During the campaign last year, I, too, talked about protecting those who are retired or near-retired. I, too, talked about holding everybody harmless from Medicare cuts up until the year 2023,” Dent explained later.

“I realize, as time marches on, it’s going to be harder and harder to maintain those commitments. But how do you go from a 28-year balanced budget to a 10-year balanced budget?”