By David Lawder
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - House Republicans passed congressman Paul Ryan's deficit-cutting budget plan on Thursday, setting it up as a central theme for their election-year campaign efforts and as a target for Democratic attacks over its proposed healthcare cuts.
In a preview of the messages they will carry home to their constituents during a two-week break, Republicans hailed the plan as a bold step toward reining in U.S. deficits, while Democrats decried it as an assault on the cherished Medicare healthcare system for the elderly.
The Ryan blueprint, which proposes to cut tax rates and slow the growth of federal debt at the expense of social programs, won House approval by a vote of 228-191, with Democrats unanimously opposed. Ten Republicans also voted no, reflecting desires among fiscal conservatives for even deeper spending cuts.
The measure faces certain death in the Democratic-controlled Senate, but some of its components, especially proposed reforms to Medicare, will live on in campaign ads, debates and speeches for months to come.
Republicans, including presidential front-runner Mitt Romney, are portraying the Ryan budget as a bold, brave step toward shrinking deficits that have ballooned to trillion-dollar levels during each year of Democratic President Barack Obama's term.
They hope it will help win voters who are profoundly worried about growing U.S. debt and Obama's stewardship of a still struggling economy.
"The House budget and my own plan share the same path forward: pro-growth tax cuts, getting federal spending under control, and strengthening entitlement programs for future generations," Romney said in a statement after the vote.
Should Romney win the Republican nomination and ultimately defeat Obama in November, he would likely resurrect the Ryan plan as a "ready-made deficit reduction template," said Ethan Siegal, who advises institutional investors on Washington politics.
Ryan, 42, has been frequently mentioned as a potential Republican vice presidential candidate. He said on Sunday that he would consider that role if offered.
Often warning that a European-style debt crisis is looming for the United States, Ryan insisted that voters were ready to hear the difficult truth about the need for cuts to restore fiscal sustainability.
"People deserve to be spoken to like adults, not pandered to like children. They deserve solutions. They deserve specifics," he told a news conference after the vote.
MEDICARE CAMPAIGN LAUNCHED
The Ryan plan would deeply cut the Medicaid healthcare program for the poor by turning it into block grants for states, and it reprises his effort last year to prevent Medicare from "going bankrupt."
It proposes a voucher-like system to help the elderly buy private health insurance or access to the traditional fee-for-service Medicare system.
Democratic lawmakers said they would make the election a referendum on the Ryan plan, which the White House said would "shower millionaires and billionaires with a massive tax cut paid for by ending Medicare as we know it."
During the two-week congressional recess, which began on Thursday, lawmakers will meet with constituents to hear their concerns. They are likely to face questions over unemployment, high gas prices and their prescriptions for tackling deficits. Republicans could find themselves on the defensive over Ryan's Medicare proposal, analysts said.
"Ryan's prescriptions are difficult to explain and extremely difficult to soundbite," said Greg Valliere, a Washington policy analyst with the Potomac Research Group.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has rolled out a new campaign video starring actor Martin Sheen - who portrayed a U.S. president in the popular "West Wing" television drama - saying that Republicans "want to sacrifice Medicare in order to give tax breaks to special interests."
The Democratic campaigns immediately sent out press releases in districts where Republicans face tight re-election races to highlight the lawmakers' support of the Ryan plan.
Republican campaign operatives are already working to counter the Democratic onslaught, portraying Obama's status-quo for the program as bankrupting Medicare and the Ryan plan as saving Medicare for future generations.
Andrea Kozek, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee, said Republican ads also will remind seniors that Obama's healthcare law, derided as "Obamacare," would cut some $500 billion from Medicare through reductions in payments to doctors.
(Reporting By David Lawder; Editing by Ross Colvin and Xavier Briand)