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.