Meet Paul Ryan 2.0

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) walks to a meeting with House Republicans on Capitol Hill October 16, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
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Tim Alberta
Oct. 31, 2013, 4:05 p.m.

This was shap­ing up to be Paul Ry­an’s mo­ment.

With the Re­pub­lic­an Party reel­ing from a gov­ern­ment shut­down and a near dis­aster over the debt lim­it, the chair­man of the House Budget Com­mit­tee was tasked with lead­ing the GOP in a six-week bicam­er­al budget con­fer­ence. Re­pub­lic­ans, who de­man­ded these talks in ex­change for a short-term budget res­ol­u­tion, were ex­pec­ted to pur­sue big-pic­ture ne­go­ti­ations over Amer­ica’s long-term fisc­al chal­lenges.

But that’s not go­ing to hap­pen. Since be­ing ap­poin­ted as the Re­pub­lic­an ne­go­ti­at­ing chief two weeks ago, Ry­an has en­deavored to lower pub­lic ex­pect­a­tions for the com­mit­tee, say­ing he hopes to pur­sue small, tar­geted policy fixes rather than broad, sweep­ing re­forms.

“We don’t want to set ex­pect­a­tions that aren’t go­ing to be achieved. That’s not help­ful,” Ry­an told Na­tion­al Journ­al Daily on the eve of ne­go­ti­ations.

Ry­an ad­ded: “There won’t be a grand bar­gain. So we shouldn’t sug­gest that there will be.”

Such mod­esty of pur­pose sounds pe­cu­li­ar com­ing from a politi­cian who, after Re­pub­lic­ans re­gained the House ma­jor­ity in 2011, was cel­eb­rated by con­ser­vat­ives as Amer­ica’s fisc­al mes­si­ah. When Ry­an re­leased a budget that year, he de­scribed it as “the new House ma­jor­ity’s an­swer to his­tory’s call.”

In­deed, Ry­an viewed his role in mo­ment­ous con­text. Upon tak­ing the Budget Com­mit­tee gavel in 2011, he en­vi­sioned a great fisc­al set­tle­ment, built upon sweep­ing re­forms to Amer­ica’s en­ti­tle­ment sys­tem. But for nearly three years there­after, Wash­ing­ton failed to reach a com­pre­hens­ive agree­ment, with both sides balk­ing on con­ces­sions and re­vert­ing to fin­ger-point­ing that eroded trust and emp­tied the Cap­it­ol’s already-di­min­ished reser­voir of good­will.

Of course, Ry­an was no in­no­cent. After in­tro­du­cing one of the most ideo­lo­gic­ally-charged budgets ever seen on Cap­it­ol Hill—one that stood zero chance of be­com­ing law—Ry­an re­fused to com­prom­ise on the no-new-taxes plat­form that had come to define the House GOP. He voted against the Bowles-Simpson de­fi­cit-re­duc­tion plan in 2010, and later helped scuttle the “grand bar­gain” be­ing dis­cussed by Pres­id­ent Obama and Speak­er John Boehner in 2011. All the while, Ry­an and House Re­pub­lic­ans mocked Sen­ate Demo­crats for re­fus­ing to re­lease a com­pet­ing budget.

Then, in March of this year, Sen­ate Demo­crats passed their first budget in four years. Soon after, Sen. Patty Mur­ray, D-Wash., chair­wo­man of the Sen­ate Budget Com­mit­tee, met with Ry­an to dis­cuss the “many dif­fer­ences” in their blue­prints. But the talks stalled, and when GOP lead­er­ship blocked the path to a con­fer­ence com­mit­tee, Mur­ray blas­ted Re­pub­lic­ans for re­fus­ing to re­con­cile their budget­ary dif­fer­ences.

Re­pub­lic­ans re­versed course after the gov­ern­ment shut­down. When the dust settled and an agree­ment was reached, Re­pub­lic­ans could claim only one con­ces­sion: Ry­an would lead the GOP in­to a bicam­er­al budget con­fer­ence (Ry­an, for his part, voted against that deal).

Against that back­drop of dis­trust and dys­func­tion, Ry­an’s friends and col­leagues say, it makes sense to scale back ex­pect­a­tions for this newly-con­vened con­fer­ence com­mit­tee. Still, the irony is un­mis­tak­able. Three years ago, Ry­an hoped his ap­proach could change the way Wash­ing­ton does busi­ness. Three years later, the way Wash­ing­ton does busi­ness has changed his own ap­proach.

“I think ex­per­i­ence has been a hard teach­er here,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., a friend of Ry­an’s who is serving along­side him on con­fer­ence com­mit­tee. “He’d love to get in­to the ne­go­ti­ations and find out both sides are will­ing to go fur­ther. But we’re wise not to raise ex­pect­a­tions right now.”

Cole points out that Ry­an’s low-bar strategy is re­flect­ive not only of re­cent le­gis­lat­ive in­er­tia, but of cur­rent par­tis­an in­transigence. Demo­crats re­fuse to con­sider en­ti­tle­ment re­forms un­less ac­com­pan­ied by sig­ni­fic­ant ad­di­tion­al rev­en­ues. And for Re­pub­lic­ans in Ry­an’s con­fer­ence, the sug­ges­tion of more rev­en­ues—either through tax hikes or changes to the tax code—is a non­starter.

Ry­an, after months of one-on-one talks with Mur­ray, re­cog­nizes the scope of these dis­agree­ments, and sees little time to re­solve them. Their com­mit­tee must re­port by Dec. 13 wheth­er it has reached an agree­ment to re­con­cile budget­ary dif­fer­ences and fund the gov­ern­ment for the rest of fisc­al year 2014. If noth­ing is ac­com­plished, the coun­try will ca­reen to­ward an­oth­er gov­ern­ment shut­down on Jan. 16, and, pos­sibly, an­oth­er debt-ceil­ing crisis in early Feb­ru­ary.

Ry­an knows the dam­age Oc­to­ber’s fisc­al drama did to his party, and col­leagues say he’s de­term­ined to avoid an­oth­er such epis­ode. In his mind, this budget con­fer­ence isn’t an oc­ca­sion to swing for the fisc­al fences; rather, it’s an op­por­tun­ity to re­build trust between parties and reach com­mon ground. In­stead of de­bat­ing struc­tur­al changes to en­ti­tle­ment pro­grams, the con­fer­ence com­mit­tee will fo­cus on swap­ping out the se­quester cuts for smarter, tar­geted re­forms.

In­deed, Ry­an, who once fam­ously offered his budget as the “Roadmap for Amer­ica’s Fu­ture,” is now resigned to nav­ig­at­ing his Re­pub­lic­an Party safely through the next sev­er­al months.

“I think at this point, with the time frame, he’s just tak­ing a real­ist­ic ap­proach—and one that is much more likely to be suc­cess­ful,” said Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., Ry­an’s close friend and vice chair­man of the Budget Com­mit­tee. “Part of this is about re­gain­ing trust with each oth­er. And if there’s an op­por­tun­ity to do that through this pro­cess, then it will have a pos­it­ive out­come.”

But Ry­an hasn’t lost track of the big­ger pic­ture, his col­leagues in­sist. In in­ter­views with his three fel­low House Re­pub­lic­an budget con­fer­ees, a con­sensus emerged: Ry­an’s small-ball ap­proach is not a re­treat from his long-term fisc­al vis­ion, they said, but rather a quiet step in that dir­ec­tion.

“We don’t want to set the bar so high to the point where any­thing less is con­sidered a fail­ure,” said Rep. Di­ane Black, R-Tenn. “Ob­vi­ously there are some pretty big dif­fer­ences between the House and Sen­ate budgets. If we can get a down pay­ment on our debt, that’s a vic­tory.”

That phrase—”a down pay­ment”—is straight from the Ry­an mes­saging ma­chine. It’s how he framed his early-Oc­to­ber fisc­al pro­pos­al, which called for minor tweaks to Medi­care in ex­change for re­open­ing the gov­ern­ment and rais­ing the debt ceil­ing. (Not­ably, the plan did not touch Obama­care.) In selling this plan to skep­tic­al con­ser­vat­ives at an Oct. 9 meet­ing of the Re­pub­lic­an Study Com­mit­tee, he ar­gued that by for­ging agree­ment on those smal­ler en­ti­tle­ment re­forms that Obama has en­dorsed, Re­pub­lic­ans would lay the found­a­tion for big­ger struc­tur­al changes down the road. They agreed.

Ry­an re­mains the only mem­ber of the House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence who car­ries this cred­ib­il­ity. And while con­ser­vat­ives in the House have re­stric­ted his play­book with their ab­so­lute op­pos­i­tion to new rev­en­ues, they have un­waver­ing con­fid­ence in their ne­go­ti­at­ing chief to reach—or re­ject—any deal.

“This is a chance to get something done. Paul’s not go­ing to take a bad deal. Paul wants to get something that’s go­ing to move us in the right dir­ec­tion,” said Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Ga., who serves on Ry­an’s Budget Com­mit­tee and chairs the RSC task force on budget and spend­ing. “I don’t know what po­ten­tial there is, but if any­one can get a deal out of that con­fer­ence com­mit­tee, it’s gonna be Paul.”

Of course, this unique trust that con­ser­vat­ives have in Ry­an prompts the ques­tion: Why not use that cap­it­al to push for a big­ger deal, know­ing that he’s the one House Re­pub­lic­an cap­able of selling it?

Skep­tics sur­mise that Ry­an doesn’t want to risk fall­ing out of fa­vor with con­ser­vat­ives, which could jeop­ard­ize his polit­ic­al fu­ture, wheth­er he takes aim at the Ways and Means Com­mit­tee, the speak­er’s of­fice, or the White House. Still, oth­ers sug­gest a sim­pler ex­plan­a­tion: The tim­ing just isn’t right to push for a grand bar­gain.

Mean­while, there are whis­pers of “prag­mat­ic Paul,” re­fer­ring to the law­maker who, since re­turn­ing from his failed vice pres­id­en­tial run, voted in fa­vor of the “fisc­al cliff” deal, helped Boehner broker an in­tern­al cease-fire that raised the debt ceil­ing, and voted for two con­tro­ver­sial bills—Hur­ricane Sandy Re­lief and the Vi­ol­ence Against Wo­men Act—that passed with min­im­al Re­pub­lic­an sup­port.

Demo­crats see these in­dic­at­ors, and con­sider Ry­an’s long-term ob­ject­ive. They won­der when, if ever, Ry­an will merge his prag­mat­ic streak with the cap­it­al he pos­sesses among House con­ser­vat­ives.

“Paul Ry­an has a huge amount of cred­ib­il­ity in his caucus on budget is­sues,” said Rep. Chris Van Hol­len, D-Md., the rank­ing mem­ber of the Budget Com­mit­tee, who has worked closely with Ry­an in re­cent years. “He is the Re­pub­lic­an point-per­son on the budget. He’s got a lot of sup­port and a lot of cred­ib­il­ity. The ques­tion is, how does he want to use it?”

In con­ver­sa­tions with Ry­an’s friends and col­leagues, one word—”lead­er­ship”—echoes uni­ver­sally. Not in the con­text of House con­ser­vat­ives, or even the Re­pub­lic­an Party. Rather, they sug­gest, Ry­an sees a dir­ec­tion­less Con­gress fail­ing to ad­dress the na­tion’s most sig­ni­fic­ant prob­lems—and no one step­ping for­ward to bring the two sides to­geth­er.

Ry­an once hoped to lead by com­mand­ing sweep­ing changes to the fed­er­al budget. That ap­proach made him one of the most po­lar­iz­ing fig­ures in mod­ern polit­ics. Now, with the GOP brand badly dam­aged and Con­gress no closer to solv­ing the na­tion’s long-term fisc­al chal­lenges, Ry­an is chan­ging tack. His des­tin­a­tion hasn’t changed, Cole said, but he’s pre­pared to get there “step by step.”

“Nobody has to aban­don their prin­ciples,” Ry­an told mem­bers of the budget con­fer­ence when it con­vened Wed­nes­day. “In­stead, we need to find out where our prin­ciples over­lap. We won’t solve all our prob­lems “¦ so let’s fo­cus on achiev­able goals. Let’s find com­mon ground.”

This was shap­ing up to be Paul Ry­an’s mo­ment. In an un­ex­pec­ted way, it still could be.

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