Ryan Is Again in the Forefront for the G.O.P.
By JONATHAN WEISMAN, The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Representative Paul D. Ryan may have temporarily receded into the Capitol shadows after his stinging vice-presidential defeat in November, but he remains a powerful presence among House Republicans, earning the respect of hard-line conservatives for his budget blueprint and the trust of anxious moderates for his pragmatism.
Now, the impasse that has shuttered much of the government and steered the nation toward a default has offered the Wisconsin congressman a new opening to reassert himself — and suddenly a man who seemed in danger of being eclipsed as the face of his party has re-emerged as essential to its rescue.
“I want to get to a budget agreement,” Mr. Ryan said bluntly on Thursday, after House Republican leaders latched onto his plan to offer a short-term increase in the debt ceiling as a way forward on deficit reduction and tax reform talks. “We think this takes us in the right direction.”
Mr. Ryan, 43, has immense credibility with conservatives for his “Path to Prosperity” budget, which proposed politically risky Medicare changes and deep tax cuts. Moderates see Mr. Ryan, who has broken with some conservatives over immigration, as a lawmaker with some flexibility. In many respects, his standing exceeds that of the party’s titular leader, Speaker John A. Boehner. Perhaps most important, Democrats believe that when Mr. Ryan drafts a plan, he can actually deliver the votes. They hold no such confidence in Mr. Boehner.
“He’s still the intellectual center of Republicans in the House,” said Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, who serves as Mr. Ryan’s bridge between the House Budget and Appropriations Committees. “He’s a guy who commands universal respect in the conference and the trust of leadership, and he has credibility with the other side.”
Mr. Ryan’s association with the new urgency to find a way out of the fiscal crisis “quite frankly is a sign to Democrats that we’re awfully serious about this,” Mr. Cole said.
Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the Democratic chairwoman of the Senate Budget Committee, said her House counterpart’s low profile after last year’s loss reflected a pragmatic strategy of “not being the face of the flamethrowers” in the House.
But now, Mr. Ryan suddenly is everywhere, as his party tries to resolve the impasse those “flamethrowers” brought about. An opinion piece he wrote in The Wall Street Journal this week laid out what has now become the House Republican plan: a debt ceiling increase tied to changes to Medicare and Medigap plans that would save more than enough money to ease some of the across-the-board cuts to domestic and defense programs; a fast track for the comprehensive simplification of the tax code; and a demand for immediate, serious and structured negotiations with the White House and Democratic Senate.
The fact that Mr. Ryan’s plan quite obviously made no mention of the health care law as a bargaining chip quickly drew him scorn from some on the right, but to Democrats and more moderate Republicans, the sidelining of the health care fight immediately gave the plan credibility.
He marketed his idea on Wednesday to the House’s hard-line conservatives in the Republican Study Committee, getting enough favorable reaction to pull in the Republican leadership. On Thursday, after Mr. Boehner presented it to the full Republican conference, it became the official Republican position. As Mr. Boehner laid it out to the public, Mr. Ryan stood silently behind him.
On Friday, he will take his message to the Values Voters Summit, a meeting of social conservatives. But according to an advance text of his remarks, he will add words of caution: “This president, he won’t agree to everything we need to do. A budget agreement — with this president and this Senate — it won’t solve all of our problems. But I hope it’s a start. I hope we can get a down payment on our debt.”
Republicans and Democrats said Thursday that the success or failure of this new path forward will rest on Mr. Ryan’s shoulders. Republicans hope that with Mr. Ryan leading the charge, Washington will finally grapple with the true drivers of the federal budget deficit: entitlement programs like Medicare that are swelling as the population ages. Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, said conversations between Mr. Ryan and the senators he will need on his side had already begun.
Democrats, closely examining the outlines of the Ryan plan, say he is showing a new modesty and a narrower vision than the one rejected by American voters in the 2012 presidential campaign. Back then, and even earlier this year, Mr. Ryan championed converting Medicare into a voucherlike program in which beneficiaries would be given fixed premium subsidies they would use to buy private health insurance.
Now he is talking about means-testing Medicare to make richer beneficiaries pick up more of the tab and ensuring that taxpayers do not subsidize the private Medigap plans purchased by upper-income recipients to augment Medicare coverage. Versions of both of those proposals are in Mr. Obama’s budget for the current fiscal year.
By not trying to do too much, Mr. Ryan may be able to do just enough, Ms. Murray said. In 2011, Mr. Ryan conspicuously declined to serve on a special select committee empaneled in the shadow of a debt ceiling fight that year to find a bipartisan path forward, worrying that the effort would tarnish his ambitions for higher office.
After Mr. Ryan became the face of his party’s most ambitious — and to critics, most radical — fiscal plans during the 2012 campaign, Ms. Murray and other Democrats groaned late last year when Mr. Boehner made him the leadership’s point man to resolve the “fiscal cliff,” the automatic tax increases and spending cuts that were to take place Jan. 1 if Congress failed to act.
“His vision was actually on the ballot, and Americans decided to go in a different direction,” Ms. Murray said in November.
Ms. Murray and others have changed their assessment of the man after dozens of private meetings aimed at finding a bipartisan path forward. Democrats have been pressing for formal negotiations since April, when both chambers passed budget and tax policy blueprints that were starkly at odds. Ms. Murray and Mr. Ryan have believed for months that despite the vast policy gap, they could find common ground. The coming weeks may test whether that is true.
“Patty and I have a good relationship,” Mr. Ryan said Thursday. “We don’t agree on much but we get along well.”