As the showdown over the budget drags on, one name conspicuously missing in the daily back-and-forth between Republicans and Democrats is that of House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan.
The Wisconsin Republican — who last year was a household name who scarcely could go a news cycle without a mention as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential running mate — has been largely silent. While other potential 2016 presidential candidates have been out front — namely Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas — Ryan has stayed in the background.
“He doesn’t want to be part of this,” said Rep. Sander Levin, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee. “He doesn’t know where he fits in. With the tea-party guys? No, he doesn’t want to be associated with them.”
Conor Sweeney, a spokesman for Ryan, says, “Chairman Ryan continues to work with his colleagues to forge a budget agreement.” His office declined an interview request.
Aides to other top House Republicans say Ryan is, in fact, busy in closed-door meetings, working to craft the House Republicans’ strategy and legislation on the debt ceiling.
But some say the onetime conservative darling — never too press-averse (he shared his workouts and the songs on his iPod during the election) — is simply lying low in an effort to avoid being tarred by the shutdown.
“Part of the low visibility might have to do with where he wants to go next: president, speaker, chairman of Ways and Means,” says G. William Hoagland, a former GOP Senate Budget Committee staffer who is a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “Each future position seems to recommend that it’s best to lay low and work behind the scenes, be a workhorse, not a show horse right now.”
Ryan has done a few interviews. In one chat Friday with his home-state paper, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Ryan appeared to try to put some distance between himself and the current crisis, caused by the House and Senate’s inability to agree on a bill to restart government funding and end the shutdown.
“I am not the Appropriations chairman,” he told the paper. “The Budget Committee does not do that. That is not my Budget Committee’s jurisdiction.”
Ryan also dismissed criticism that he has not been front and center.
“Sometimes I think it is important to do your job and try to find a solution. If I have something meaningful to say, I will go out and say it in the press,” he said. “I am hunkered down and doing my job with my staff, with leadership trying to come up with solutions to this problem.”
As recently as two weeks ago, Ryan had said in an interview he did not think a shutdown would happen, and that it would not “serve our interests,” meaning Republicans’ efforts to delay or kill the Affordable Care Act.
On Monday, a Ryan aide did not respond when asked if the lawmaker now disagrees with President Obama that Speaker John Boehner should allow a vote on a “clean” funding bill stripped of anti-Obamacare language.
Still, Ryan himself provided an indication last week of what he really thinks. At a photo event staged with House Republicans, he indicated that budget and debt-ceiling talks should be linked, in a way that could involve broader discussions over areas such as entitlement and tax reform.
“Most budget agreements in the past have always involved debt-limit increase,” Ryan said. “We think that’s the forcing mechanism.”