Ouch! Here is the Northwest's most-popular U. S. senator (at least judged by past election returns) caught with an embarrassing alliance with a Republican who must be demonized by his party in the coming months.
It's not entirely new for Ron Wyden (D-Ore), or rather for his penchant for forming unusual alliances on big-picture issues. This time it's a Medicare proposal he launched last year with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc). Yes, that Paul Ryan.
Last December, the two veteran lawmakers, each of whom sits on key budget committees, unveiled a plan to reform Medicare by combining public plans with private plans that would have a federal underpinning. Immediately controversial — particularly among Democratic leaders in Congress who have stoutly resisted privatization of Medicare — the plan went nowhere in the GOP-controlled House in 2012 and did not wind up in Ryan's controversial budget plan.
But when Ryan was picked by Mitt Romney to join his ticket, Republicans immediately went on offense by claiming the Wyden-Ryan plan was evidence that Ryan works across party lines. Democrats at the same time were beginning what is sure to be a major offensive against Ryan's budget, which does go further toward privatization than his work with Wyden.
Wyden was caught out with the Ryan pick and although he knew his alliance was unpopular within his party, he had not expected it to figure in the 2012 presidential race. Noting that he had voted in the Senate against Ryan's budget earlier this year, including its Medicare elements, Wyden defended his work but denied that it remains in the plans of the Romney-Ryan ticket.
He told The Oregonian's Charles Pope that a key is the Affordable Care Act, which both Romney and Ryan pledge to repeal. "If you repeal the Affordable Care Act, what Mr. Romney is saying is, he just wishes for the best," Wyden told Pope. "The point really," Wyden said, "is that the far right is not willing to accept the principles of the white paper" he wrote with Ryan. "I have seen no evidence Mr. Romney will commit to protecting the Medicare guarantee of providing healthcare to all seniors who qualify."
Wyden began his political career as an advocate for seniors, and any suggestion that he is abandoning them reaches his inner soul. When I first met him in the 1970s, he founded and led an advocacy group for seniors in Oregon called Gray Panthers, and it put him in the news and on the political stage. He took out an incumbent Democratic Congressman, Bob Duncan in 1980 and in 1996 narrowly won the Senate seat opened by the resignation of Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore). He never looked back, winning three subsequent elections by wide margins.
Wyden is given to big issues and attempting to form bipartisan solutions. In 2009 he joined with Sen. Bob Bennett, a Utah conservative, to forge a bipartisan health-care compromise. Five other Democrats, four other Republicans and Independent Joe Lieberman signed on. The next year, BennettÕs willingness to work with Wyden and other Democrats was a major factor in sealing his loss to a conservative in Utah. The proposal lost out to what became the Affordable Care Act.
In 2010 Wyden joined Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) on a tax-reform overhaul; it didn't get anywhere and Gregg retired. Wyden did win one in 2010. With Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass) he sponsored the plan to allow states to opt out of federal health-care reforms; it became part of the Affordable Care Act. Brown is still in the Senate, at least until November. All of Wyden's coalitions arise from his seats on Budget and Finance, where the big fiscal and health-care issues arise.
The Wyden-Ryan proposal has all the complexity that comes with the subject of Medicare. As described by the New York Times' Robert Pear:
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