Making things even more precarious for Ryan is this: For the first time in his short career as speaker, the training wheels are off. He's got to figure out how to win over conservatives without Democrats' help or being able to blame former speaker John Boehner for putting him in a bind. If he fails, the biggest priority for him of 2016 — passing a budget and then all 12 regular appropriations bills that are due every year, instead lumping all of them into one package at the last minute — could go down in flames as well.
Ryan's struggle is two-fold. First, he's got to walk a careful tightrope with about 30 or 40 conservatives. The likeliest scenario is he forges ahead with a deal they don't agree on while trying not to burn too much of the political capital he's worked hard to cultivate with the group.
But there are signs that the goodwill that has marked his first few months could be cracking in this burgeoning budget drama. Listen to House Freedom Caucus member Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.): “If we don’t do something dramatically different, we’re going to end up with the same result," he told Politico. "That’s not good for anybody — most specifically, Mr. Ryan.”
Given how Boehner (R-Ohio) left Congress this fall — resigning after the Freedom Caucus threatened to remove him — it's hard not to read Mulvaney's comment as a thinly veiled threat that Ryan could end up in the same boat.
The second problem is perhaps more troublesome for Ryan: If he loses his fight with conservatives, he won't have Democrats to fall back on this time.
Budgets are inherently political documents. President Obama introduced his to Congress on Tuesday. The $4 trillion proposal includes investing billions of dollars in clean energy and taxing big banks and the wealthy. It's also dead on arrival in the GOP Congress.
"This isn’t even a budget so much as it is a progressive manual for growing the federal government at the expense of hardworking Americans,” Ryan said Tuesday.
Republicans, who control both chambers, are considering an equally partisan budget. Ryan has said he wants to spend much of 2016 proposing contrasts to Obama and Democrats. When he was the head of the committee that crafted these budgets, his idea to make Medicare a voucher system was so politically dicey that Democrats put Ryan's budget in attack ads across the country.
Whatever budget Republican leaders come up with this time may not be as big of a lightning rod. But it will most certainly alienate Democrats, a group of lawmakers who came to Ryan's rescue last time Congress voted on a budget. Just 79 Republicans voted yes on the October budget deal that laid the framework for December's spending bill. Democrats carried the rest of the load to get to 218 yes votes and pass it.
This time around, Ryan can only afford to lose 28 House Republicans. The budget hasn't even been submitted yet, and already it looks like it's going to be close.
Ryan has proven adept at keeping the peace between conservatives and the rest of the party so far. But how many votes he gets for the Republican budget will probably depend less on his peace-making/negotiating skills and more on whether conservatives are willing to compromise.
If they do decide to put down their arms for him, it would be a first.