How the Next Two Months Will Change Paul Ryan’s Life

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.

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) walks to a meeting with House Republicans on Capitol Hill October 16, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
Oct. 22, 2013, 6:01 p.m.

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.”

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