WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats on Tuesday launched a preemptive strike on Rep. Paul Ryan, who will deliver the official Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union address.
Ryan, who turns 41 later this week, is viewed as a rising star of the party, a budget hawk who hasn't been afraid to spark conversations about taking on entitlement programs such as Medicaid and Social Security.
For months, Democrats have tried to tie Ryan's past proposals to reshape both programs to the rest of the GOP. Since Ryan has taken the helm of the House Budget Committee, the Wisconsinite has been more circumspect in his words. But that hasn't stopped Democrats from suggesting that Ryan's views now have the endorsement of the House Republican leadership.
"Paul Ryan owes it to the national audience tonight to explain why he wants to privatize Social Security and Medicare," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), in a news release Tuesday.
Ryan's tough talk on entitlements has won him support among fiscal conservatives, with some pundits suggesting that he should consider a 2012 presidential run in a party hungry for fresh faces. The official GOP response is often given to a young, up-and-coming figure in the party. Last year, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell gave the remarks, with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal representing the party in 2009.
Ryan isn't expected to discuss cutting entitlements Tuesday evening, but instead is expected to call for an end to a "spending binge" in Washington and is likely to link raising the federal debt limit later this year to an agreement with Democrats on deep budget cuts. He helped lead a House vote Wednesday in which Republicans passed a resolution directing his committee to set a 2011 budget that caps spending at 2008 levels.
But while Ryan's words may be finely tuned to avoid giving Democrats fresh meat, the message may still be muddled -- through no fault of his own. That's because after Ryan delivers his speech, another Republican, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, will follow with a response of her own.
Bachmann, 54, may harbor presidential ambitions herself. She recently made a trip to Iowa and hasn't dismissed talk of her running. The three-term congresswoman has tried to position herself as a vanguard of the "tea party" movement. Her speech Tuesday evening will be live-streamed on the Web by the Tea Party Express, a political action group, and carried by CNN only. ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News and MSNBC all declined to air the speech. In contrast, as per tradition, Ryan's rebuttal will run on all major networks.
The differences between the two speeches may be more show than substance. There isn't a great deal of ideological sunlight between Ryan and Bachmann. Both will call for deep spending cuts, although Bachmann may take an even harder line than Ryan, who, along with other House leaders, has conceded that a GOP campaign promise to slice $100 billion from the current fiscal year budget may not be attainable because half the year will have passed by the time a new funding bill is prepared.
In a year when Republicans seek to project a unified front after the bruising primary battles of 2010, House leaders on Monday sounded lukewarm at best about the notion of competing messages.
"Paul Ryan is giving the official Republican response," said Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) "Michele Bachmann, just as the other 534 members of the House and Senate are, are going to have opinions as to the State of the Union."