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Are Republicans Retreating on the Budget?

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor wants to make clear that the Republican Party leadership isn't preparing to give up on Paul Ryan's budget and its proposal to end Medicare as we know it. "Our position is the Ryan budget," a Cantor spokesperson told Politico last night. 

But reading between the lines of various media accounts in the last 24 hours, it seems like the Republicans are ready to back off. And it's not really surprising. Senate Democrats have said they would not pass such a proposal. President Obama has said he would not sign one. Given that polls show the Medicare position to be extremely unpopular, they have enough political support to keep those promises. 

What happens next, though, is less clear to me. Jon Chait sketches out the framework of a potential budget deal, based on the same media accounts, and it certainly makes sense to me. But Cantor's statement is a reminder that his conservative base remains loud, powerful, and volatile. Maybe they think Republicans can actually prevail, by refusing the raise the debt limit or shutting down the government. Or maybe they think Republicans can get a better deal by standing by the demand for longer.

The leadership may know better. But, as Steve Benen notes, "it remains to be seen whether the GOP's rank-and-file agree. As we've seen in recent months, party leaders aren't always the ones doing the leading."

And what happens after the budget debate? Do congressional Republicans embrace the proposal in 2012, vowing to enact it if they get full control of the government? How do the Republican presidential contenders handle it? The same essential political forces will be at work, with an angry conservative base potentially pushing for changes that the rest of the country positively hates. 

But those are political questions. In the meantime, there's one very important policy story to watch. Recent statements and media accounts make it pretty clear that GOP leadership want to give up on Ryan's proposed changes to Medicare. They are not as clear when it comes go the GOP leadership's feeling on proposed to changes to Medicaid. While both programs are popular, support for Medicaid isn't quite as strong as it is for Medicare. In addition, the idea of giving states "flexibility" over Medicaid sounds a lot less threatening than privatizing Medicare, even though the Ryan plan for Medicaid would have an equally devastating (if not more devastating) effect on the people who depend upon the program. (See the graph below and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities paper from which it comes.)

No, the full Ryan Medicaid scheme isn't likely to become reality anytime soon. But, as my former colleague Suzy Khimm notes at Mother Jones, Republicans have already introduced a "kindler, gentler" version that would still mean massive cuts. Medicaid's role in financing long-term care for the disabled and elderly, not to mention its broader role propping up the whole health care system, still make it difficult to cut. But that aspect of the budget fight, certainly, is far from over.

Update: Ezra Klein and Chris Jennings, two of the smartest health care wonks around, explain why Medicaid is so important and, potentially, so vulnerable.