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Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio blaze different 2016 trails on ‘fiscal cliff’

The first big vote of the 2016 presidential race was held Tuesday: the "fiscal cliff."

One major GOP contender, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), voted no on the package, while another, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), voted yes. And the votes may provide some insight into their potential 2016 strategies.

(We should also note that a third potential candidate, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, voted no with Rubio.)

A few thoughts:

1. Votes on taxes matter -- a lot

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). (Adam Jennings/AP)

Few things are as much anathema to the Republican Party base as a tax increase (see: Bush, George H.W.), which means the stakes of the vote are very high in GOP primaries. This is a big reason we saw such an extended debate over the "fiscal cliff" -- it was very hard for Republicans to come around to the idea of allowing tax cuts for the wealthy to expire, knowing it could cost them in primaries.

The question from here is whether a vote for or against the package will be deemed voting for a tax increase. Technically, Congress just renewed tax cuts for 99 percent of Americans (and let the top 1 percent expire), but the most conservative Republicans wanted 100 percent to be renewed and were holding out for that.

In addition, the package contained very few spending cuts, which will likely make it even more unpopular with the GOP base.

2. The dust hasn't settled

The 11th-hour nature of the negotiations makes it very difficult to figure out all the potential outcomes, and it was a very compressed window for outside conservative groups to signal their preferences or threaten to take action against members. Those who did were largely split. While the tea party didn't like the deal, anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist -- who has built a brand by being uncompromising -- has been giving members who voted for it some political cover

Given that the most conservative elements and members of the party didn't like the deal, we tend to think that Ryan took the tougher vote here. And after all, it's much more difficult to vote for something than vote against it.

3. Time heals (many) wounds

Some are already comparing the "fiscal cliff" vote to the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) bailout, a single vote that (arguably) cost several Republicans their jobs in the 2010 election.

But the lesson of the 2008 TARP vote is that these things have a shelf life. In fact, TARP wasn't much of an issue at all in the 2012 GOP presidential primary. And the "fiscal cliff" vote was held at very much the same point in the process -- right around the preceding presidential election and more than three years before the 2016 primaries begin.

This all seems very important right now, but three years is an eternity in politics, and we've got plenty of other tough votes ahead.

4. What it says about their strategies

Rubio was one of just five Senate Republicans to vote no, which gives him a platform to talk about why the deal stunk so much. What's more, even Republicans who voted for the package said that it stunk, so he's got plenty of allies. From here, he can talk about how a broken Washington led to this package and how Republicans shouldn't merely accept a shoddy bill.

Ryan, meanwhile, followed the party (establishment) line. If it came down to it, he could argue that Rubio voted to go over the "fiscal cliff" and wasn't being a team player -- Ryan emphasized "the realities of governing" in a statement -- but much as with TARP, the consequences of inaction on the cliff will likely be a pretty distant memory by 2016. And the tea party base in recent years has shown little interest in pragmatism. 

If anything, the vote suggests that Ryan will play nice with the establishment in the coming years, hoping to shore up early support for 2016, while Rubio will continue to play to the grassroots base that put him on the radar in his 2010 Senate race.

And therein lie the benefits for each man.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.

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