Paul Ryan is a name synonymous with Republican fiscal priorities. As the House Budget Committee chairman, and as the GOP's vice-presidential candidate last year, the nation's debts and deficits have been the centerpiece of his political career.
But as the House and Senate begin a budget conference next week for the first time in four years, what kind of negotiator will he be?
The answer may lie in what Ryan, whose political future appears both bright and clouded, wants to do next. A Ryan interested in serving as speaker, after a short stint perhaps as Ways and Means Committee chairman, may handle negotiations differently than one who plans to run for president in 2016.
Either way, the negotiations and their outcome could have an impact on the Wisconsin congressman's future, presenting both opportunities and risks.
"How he handles this one and what, if anything, is agreed to could be a seminal point in Paul's legislative career," says William Hoagland, a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, former Senate Budget Committee staff director, and longtime GOP aide.
Ryan's staff says he is not dwelling on the potential impact on his own political career as he steps up as the top Republican negotiator on the conference committee. "We'll leave it to others to speculate on Chairman Ryan's future," House Budget Committee spokesman William Allison said. "His focus is on getting a budget deal and providing relief for families."
But others, including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., note that Ryan was among those who voted last week against the deal to reopen government and lift the debt ceiling. That same deal is what produced the requirement for the budget conference committee, and Hoyer says Ryan's opposition to it "does not bode well."
Staff is already at work, but all 29 conferees will formally begin meeting next week in a meeting that will be broadcast live. They have until roughly Dec. 13 to come up with a new government spending plan for both chambers (the current stopgap expires on Jan. 15).
Skepticism abounds over whether the conference committee will be able to come up with any agreement at all. Ryan and Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., will start with their vastly different House and Senate budget resolutions. Neither will be accepted by the other. Ryan's House proposal is billed as balancing the budget in 10 years by cutting spending to the tune of $5.7 trillion. Murray's blueprint calls for a combination of new revenue and spending cuts to reduce the deficit by $1.8 trillion.
There is mutual distaste for the across-the-board sequester cuts, though a new round is set to kick in early next year. Democrats call for replacing the sequester with a combination of new revenue and spending cuts, while Ryan and Republicans aren't on board with raising new revenue, and instead focus on transferring more cuts onto domestic programs and reducing discretionary spending.
Other key areas of discussion could be tax and entitlement reform. Ryan wrote an op-ed column earlier this month declaring, "We could ask the better off to pay higher premiums for Medicare. We could reform Medigap plans to encourage efficiency and reduce costs. And we could ask federal employees to contribute more to their own retirement." Democrats call for making cuts, but without making major structural changes to entitlements.
Experts say the budget conference gives Ryan and Democrats a chance to fully debate fiscal policy — with at least some of that taking place before the cameras — and how Ryan plays it will matter.
Some say Ryan could play more to conservatives and tea-party members in his party, an allegiance he adhered to last week and one that could further aspirations to rise in House leadership.
Others say Ryan, recognizing the GOP's plummeting standing in public polls in the wake of the shutdown, could choose to make some compromises. That position could generate grumbling from House GOP hard-liners, but may also boost Ryan's image as someone serious about governing.
"Ryan has the opportunity to put his fiscal credibility to work on the behalf of compromise," said William Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Governance Studies Program and a cofounder of No Labels, a group that advocates for nonpartisan solutions.
But if this conference comes out with major revenue increases, Hoagland says, "I think that would be a real problem for him in the future."
In some ways, Galston said, Ryan's reputation as a fiscal conservative gives him more standing to make a stab at compromise. He likened him to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy and the standing he had with Democrats. "Kennedy was credible when he told people in his party, "˜This is the best we can do' in negotiations with Republicans," he said.
But whether Ryan is willing to do so is uncertain — and so is how it may be received. Even if Ryan and Murray do craft a compromise — perhaps a one- or two-year deal — there is no guarantee the House Republican conference would vote for it.
Steve Pruitt, a former House Budget Committee Democratic staff director who is now a managing partner at Watts Partners, said, "I know that Paul Ryan knows that the best development on the budget would be for him to truly seek a deal that would move the country forward."
However, he said he doesn't believe Ryan has any more ability to lead his Republican colleagues than Speaker John Boehner or the rest of the Republican leadership team.
As for Ryan's future, Pruitt suggests, "The identity and political leanings of the 218 people who might vote on any conference agreement he delivers to the House will determine his next move."
"If a majority of the Republican caucus supports the agreement, he'd have the ability to run for speaker or on a national ticket," he said. "But if any conference committee agreement requires votes of the Democrats and moderate Republicans for House approval, then I'd start looking for Ryan's next book on life in the Congress."