Odd bedfellows: Sen. Ron Wyden and Paul Ryan

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden (D) Credit: Oregon Military Department

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:

"The proposal would make major structural changes in Medicare and limit the government's open-ended financial commitment to the program. Under the proposal, known as premium support, Medicare would subsidize premiums charged by private insurers that care for beneficiaries under contract with the government. Congress would establish an insurance exchange for Medicare beneficiaries. Private plans would compete with the traditional Medicare program and would have to provide benefits of the same or greater value. The federal contribution in each region would be based on the cost of the second-cheapest option, whether that was a private plan or traditional Medicare. In addition, the growth of Medicare would be capped. In general, spending would not be allowed to increase more than the growth of the economy, plus one percentage point  — a slower rate of increase than Medicare has historically experienced. To stay under the limit, Congress could cut payments to providers and suppliers responsible for the overspending and could increase Medicare premiums for high-income beneficiaries, the lawmakers said."

The Wyden-Ryan plan was not included in the Ryan Budget that passed the House earlier this year and was defeated in the Senate; Wyden voted against it. So it is inaccurate to join Wyden and Ryan at the hip, although they clearly share concepts of what is needed to keep Medicare healthy. Wyden and Ryan authored a study proposal, but on its way to the House floor it was replaced by the Ryan Budget, which contained a different approach, one Wyden did not support. The difference is critical to the current discussion.

But as Pear noted in the Times, "Just as important as the details of their proposal was the fact that the two were working together on an issue that both parties have exploited for political advantage."

Wyden made the rounds of Washington's political media as soon as Ryan was announced, telling Roll Call of  his opposition to the Ryan budget that passed the House, and The Washington Post's Ezra Klein that the Romney plan "completely pulls the rug out from under the poorest and most vulnerable seniors. In the (Wyden-Ryan) white paper, protections for so-called dual eligible, the people in both Medicare and Medicaid, are bulletproof."

In coming weeks, Wyden will continue to be in a difficult box. He is pledged to support President Obama and his Affordable Care Act and he certainly won't be saying anything nice about Mitt Romney. He is well aware of the need to create space between himself and Ryan, whom he has described as a friend and colleague and fellow Democrats are describing in less-sympathetic terms.

Wyden is known in Oregon for his ability to look ahead and see an issue worth grasping, and for his tireless work ethic. During his entire Congressional career he has held countless town-hall meetings, although his commitment to marathon travel on the 3,000-mile redeye specials from Portland to Washington have been challenged by a new marriage and family; also, in 2010 surgery for prostate cancer slowed him for a time. Wyden's second wife, Nancy Bass, is a New Yorker with a considerable family fortune who Wyden married in 2005. Oregon Republicans in WydenÕs last campaign attempted to tie him to Eastern interests.

But Wyden maintains his rigorous schedule. Next Thursday he is scheduled to be in Southern Oregon at Ashland and Medford, touting electric motorcycles, his tax-reform proposal, and women veterans.

Regardless of what happens in November, Wyden will remain a favorite if he runs again in 2016. His overall record is not something one identifies with Paul Ryan. Wyden is liberal on social issues, pro-choice, favors gun restrictions, identifies with environmental groups and gay and feminist positions, and is fiercely protective of seniors and low-income citizens. But his history of cross-party work has nailed his political hide to the wall this time —as it did to some of his former Republican partners.

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