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New GOP budget puts presidential candidates on the spot


Updated 1:25 p.m. -- The release of the new Republican budget on Tuesday puts their party’s presidential hopefuls in a potentially difficult spot, forcing them to embrace or reject proposals that have little chance of becoming law, but could carry some political risk.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan joins Morning Joe to preview his 2012 budget plan. The plan would get rid of the current six tax brackets in favor of two tax levels and would get rid of the Alternative Minimum Tax.

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis, released his second official budget as the chairman of the committee overseeing fiscal matters; the plan contained proposals for sweeping reforms to entitlement programs, along with other cuts in spending.

Related: House GOP unveils budget blueprint

That means, for a second year straight, the field of GOP candidates should expect questions about their positions on the plan, which could prove problematic to their own campaigns.

“I would tell them to support it,” said Gretchen Hamel, the executive director of the right-leaning Public Notice, of her advice to the GOP hopefuls. “I think that they have a lot to gain by supporting a bold proposal on Capitol Hill. They also find a way to speak to the base through this.”

She added, “I would just be honest when it comes to the stickier parts. Maybe you don't agree with the whole solution, but you agree it has to be addressed."

Ryan consulted and spoke with each of the Republican presidential hopefuls in the days leading up to his budget announcement. Those conversations may go a way toward reprising the events from last year, when Democrats tried to make Ryan’s first budget, released a year ago, politically radioactive for Republicans. They charged the Ryan plan would “end Medicare,” and had even gained a degree of traction with that messaging until the scandal involving New York Rep. Anthony Weiner engulfed the 24-hour news cycle.

So potent was the issue that Romney hedged for months on the plan. "I appreciate what Paul Ryan has done," Romney said last May, per an Associated Press account. "I'm going to have my own plan."

While Romney didn't fully embrace Ryan's plan, his eventual proposal was largely simpatico with it. What's more, the two met on Capitol Hill last fall for about an hour. Press accounts at the time indicated the pair's conversation centered on reforms to Social Security and other entitlement programs.

Romney eventually said he would sign the Ryan budget if he were president, and his campaign embraced the plan more fully last fall as a means of attacking Newt Gingrich.

The former House speaker had famously decried the Ryan budget at first as “right-wing social engineering,” precisely because of its bold changes to entitlements. Gingrich backtracked on that criticism after Ryan publicly quipped, “With friends like that, who needs the left?”

Democrats will be attentive to how Romney and the other hopeful nominees react to the new proposal, though they believe Republicans had already made their beds with support for last year’s budget.

“There’s a reason they call them the third rail of politics,” said Eddie Vale, a spokesman for Protect Your Care, a group dedicated to promoting the president’s health reform law. “After the backlash they faced last year, even from Newt Gingrich, it’s amazing that they’re going to take another whack at it.”

Ryan argued Tuesday on "Morning Joe" that it was incumbent on the GOP to offer a contrast with Obama on major spending programs in this fall's election — a kind of referendum on the reforms he and other Republicans have proposed.

"Let's give the country the choice of very clear two futures, let the people of this country decide in the fall and whoever wins that referendum gets to implement that plan," Ryan said.

He added later at a press conference on Capitol Hill that he expects the eventual nominee to speak boldly on budgetary issues.

"Whoever our nominee is going to be owes the country that choice of two futures; we’re helping them put this together," he said. "And each of these people running for president have all given their various ideas and reforms with perfectly jive or consistent with what we’re proposing here."

Liberal groups will largely wrap the new Ryan plan and any of its proposed changes to Medicare into their overall defense of the president’s health care law during the next two weeks, which features the anniversary of President Barack Obama signing that bill into law, and Supreme Court arguments challenging the constitutionality of its reforms.

A firm embrace of the Ryan plan would also carry some political benefit for any of the GOP hopefuls.

Ryan is considered one of the GOP’s rising stars, and his name is on many short lists to become the running mate of the eventual nominee. And he's one of the few Republican figures of note yet to make an endorsement in the presidential race, and his support would help any of the candidates firm up their fiscal conservative credentials.