Paul Ryan's presidential prospects may have dimmed this week, but his future on Capitol Hill has never looked brighter.
The budget compromise he struck with Sen. Patty Murray, which passed the House on a lopsided 332-94 vote Thursday, had conservative activists and outside groups howling. That might one day curb Republican enthusiasm for Paul Ryan the presidential candidate.
But inside the dome, overwhelming support for Paul Ryan the policymaker — even from those voting against his proposal — armed him with a major legislative victory and a reputation as a bipartisan consensus-builder. That means bigger things may be on the horizon.
"Paul did astonishingly well. He was at a profound disadvantage in those negotiations, and I think he did amazingly well," said Rep. Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican who ultimately opposed the agreement.
Ryan was once believed to possess the singular ability to sell a budget compromise to even the most skeptical conservatives. Although he won over the vast majority of Republicans, that theory proved false — 62 of Ryan's GOP comrades voted against his proposal. But what he did pull off — losing the votes of those Republicans, but not their respect and admiration — is perhaps even more impressive.
"I think he's been well-respected and he's going to stay well-respected," Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, said of Ryan before the final vote on Friday.
Jordan opposed the budget deal, which he said violates part of a January agreement among Republicans stating that the House wouldn't trade away sequestration for anything except entitlement reforms. But Jordan says their dispute over this deal doesn't change his opinion of Ryan.
"I respected the guy before. I respect him now," Jordan said. "I think he's been a good leader in our conference, and a great budget chairman. I just disagree with his vote here."
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, another Ryan ally who opposed the budget deal, emphasized that Ryan's willingness to strike a compromise "does not undermine his conservative credibility or bona fides."
That sentiment rang universal this week among Ryan's conservative comrades who opposes his budget agreement. They like him and admire him as much as ever. They just weren't going to vote for his deal.
"People respect him. He had a job to do, and he went and did it," said Rep. Justin Amash, a Michigan Republican who voted against the measure.
Such adulation, of course, is coming from Ryan's colleagues in the halls of Congress. Conservative opinion-leaders and advocacy organizations outside haven't been nearly as generous with their reviews of Ryan's work.
The Club for Growth, which pressured lawmakers to vote against the deal, blasted it as "budgetary smoke and mirrors." Talk-radio host Mark Levin told Ryan the agreement was "Mickey Mouse." And Heritage Action, which also key-voted in opposition, called Ryan's work "a step backward" for conservatism.
Ryan, for his part, seemed more bemused than betrayed by the conservative criticism. "It's a strange new normal, isn't it?" he said Wednesday. "It is what it is. It's funny, isn't it?"
Laughing off disparagement is a favorite tactic of Speaker John Boehner, who launched a rhetorical offensive against the outside groups this week, saying they had "lost all credibility" after voicing opposition to a budget deal they hadn't yet seen.
Ryan once worked in Boehner's office as an intern, and the two have been close ever since. Ryan's mimicking of Boehner's attitude this week, and Boehner's paternal-like defense of Ryan's plan, could foretell a scenario one day in which the speaker's gavel passes from one small-town Midwesterner to the other. But that won't likely happen anytime soon; Boehner's office has said the speaker will run for reelection in the next Congress. And Ryan, who is term-limited as chairman of the Budget Committee, appears likely to take over the Ways and Means panel in 2015.
Still, Ryan's name has long been whispered — sometimes shouted — as a potential successor to Boehner. That speculation could have ended abruptly this week. But it didn't. In fact, listening to his colleagues shower him with adoration in recent days, it wouldn't be unreasonable to think Ryan's budget compromise may be a major asset.
"The only reason that I am, at this point, undecided is out of my complete respect and regard for Paul Ryan," Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., said Wednesday. "He has remained personally committed to conservative principles. He has remained personally committed to balancing the budget in 10 years. I am proud to serve with him."
Lummis, whom Ryan ultimately couldn't convince to support the budget deal, nonetheless added, "He has been a marvelous soldier."