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Behind the scenes: How the GOP is selling its budget plan to itself

By Dana Bash and Deirdre Walsh, CNN
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Rep. Paul Ryan discusses budget
  • Reps. Paul Ryan, Kevin McCarthy organize meetings on U.S. debt for fellow Republicans
  • Ryan, the House budget chairman, says he'll propose changes to entitlements
  • Ryan hopes to build support for changes to Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security

Washington (CNN) -- In a small conference room deep inside the Capitol, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan could be mistaken for a traveling salesman at a business meeting.

Using a PowerPoint presentation with alarming charts and frightening graphs, the Wisconsin Republican is trying to sell the need to tackle the politically explosive parts of the budget that have driven America's deep debt -- entitlements.

Ryan's audience? Fellow House Republicans.

CNN was given exclusive access to Ryan's session, one of about 15 closed-door meetings he and House Republican Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-California, have organized this year, with more sessions to come after the GOP budget for 2012 is released early next month.

Some 20 House Republicans showed up for this one, cramming around a conference room table, sipping soda, eating pretzels and chocolates, and taking copious notes.

The goal of these sessions, which Ryan holds about three times a week, is to lay out in stark terms what he calls the "tidal wave" of debt the country is facing. It's part of a long-term goal to get buy-in from his own caucus on what could be radical changes he'll propose in his budget, especially to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

"The Congressional Budget Office has this economic model where they measure the economy going forward, and they are telling us that the entire economy crashes in the year 2037 because their computer simulation can't conceive of any way in which the U.S. economy can continue," Ryan tells the group.

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"By the time my kids are my age, just those three programs -- Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare --will consume all federal revenues. There will be no room for anything else in the federal budget," says Ryan.

The sessions are also a way for McCarthy, the leader tasked with counting votes in the House, to take the temperature of his Republican colleagues and listen to any concerns they have as the debate on entitlement reform is about to unfold. The tag team approach allows Ryan and McCarthy to report feedback to Speaker Boehner and other GOP leaders before the Republican proposals are finalized.

This week's presentations for fellow Republicans are especially vital because House members will be back home in their congressional districts next week. Ryan and other House GOP leaders are encouraging their rank-and-file members to give the same talks to their constituents to build public support for change.

"Every year we delay fixing the debt problem, we go about $10 trillion deeper in the hole and adding to unfunded promises that we are making to Americans," Ryan says emphatically.

"We've got to break the cycle of politicians making empty promises to people and this is why we have to. We've got to go and explain to our constituents the seriousness of the situation and need to address these problems."

Ryan promises he will propose reforms for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security in the budget, but insists he has not yet decided what they will be.

Ryan's own 2008 proposal, which he called "A Roadmap for America's Future," was a lightning rod in the last election. Democrats used it against Republicans, pointing out it would partially privatize Social Security and begin to convert Medicare into a voucher program. But Ryan has made it clear that was his own plan and was not drafted to be his party's position.

He and his top aides say these sessions are a critical tool for gathering ideas and forming "consensus" on the House GOP entitlement reform plans.

CNN was allowed in the private meeting to watch Ryan's presentation but was not permitted to stay during the question-and-answer session with House Republicans in attendance, where ideas for reform were discussed.

Still, Ryan and top aides say these sessions are about arming House Republicans with tools to convince voters back home the problem is real and that finding a solution, whatever it may be, is critical.

"Why are we proposing to do real budget reforms and to address drivers of our debt, and do it now on our terms? Because the longer we delay, the worse it gets," Ryan said.