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Why Paul Ryan could be a loser in this budget deal

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) said he wants to reach a DACA solution after Congress passes a budget. (Video: Reuters)
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The government is 12-ish hours away from shutting down. Increasingly, the only path to keeping it open is for House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to muscle through a spending deal that could carry political risks, including, in the worst-case scenario, one to his speakership.

“I think we'll get this done,” he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt in an interview aired Thursday.

Polls from January's shutdown show that Republicans in Congress and President Trump combined received more blame than Democrats. “If this fails,” said former Senate GOP budget expert Steve Bell, “it's not going to be on the Democrats. It's going to be on Republican leadership in the House.”

The upside is keeping the government open. The potential downsides, for Ryan, are these:

Ryan might have to acquiesce to Democratic demands on 'dreamers'

While Senate Democrats seem willing to decouple their votes on a spending bill with their votes on immigration, a number of House Democrats are not. On Tuesday, in a historic, eight-hour speech, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made plain she wouldn't vote for the spending bill — threatening to take a large chunk of House Democrats with her — unless Ryan agrees to hold a vote protecting “dreamers.”

Ryan hasn't and probably won't agree to that. He has pledged to House Republicans to only bring up an immigration bill that has the majority support of Republicans. He has also made clear he doesn't want to hold a vote on something the president won't sign, and Trump has doubled down so much on his controversial proposal to cut legal immigration that the other day he said he'd be okay with a shutdown to make it happen.

President Trump on Feb. 6 said he would “love to see a shutdown” if Congress fails to reach a legislative deal that strengthens immigration enforcement. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The bet here on Ryan's part is that Pelosi is in the minority of her caucus, and that enough Democrats will vote for the spending bill without an explicit deal on dreamers. There are indications his gamble will pay off (see tweet below), but if not, Ryan may be forced to negotiate with Pelosi on dreamers.

This budget is far from the regular order Ryan promised when he became speaker

Thursday's edition of Politico Playbook made a good point: “When Paul Ryan was about to take the speakership from John A. Boehner, he railed against a package just like this.”

“A package just like this” meaning spending bills that are negotiated behind closed doors rather than in public through committees.

Ryan's allies argue that he didn't really have a choice. Congress is in such disarray that it has passed four short-term spending bills since the fiscal year that began in October. The only way to get out of that cycle was to negotiate a broader spending deal in secret, and in today's Congress that counts as a spending victory.

He risks being seen as giving up on a commitment to lower U.S. deficits

The other major piece of legislation Ryan helped shepherd through, a tax bill, is estimated to add $1.5 trillion to the deficit over the next decade. At the time, Ryan framed the deficit spike this way: Yes, this raises the deficit now, but the economic growth that Republicans hope this tax bill spurs will pay for much of it.

“Paul Ryan, deficit hawk, is also a growth advocate,” Ryan told Fox News in November.

But his and the rest of his party's position as deficit hawks gets much harder to defend when they are now voting for a budget that boosts military spending and domestic spending programs by hundreds of billions of dollars.

In fact, some House Republicans are leaning against voting for this bill precisely because the tax bill they just passed increases deficits so much. “There’s no blinking at the fact that, having reduced taxes, we now have to restrain spending,” Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) told my colleagues.

Ryan protects himself from that criticism by advocating for legislation changing what economists say is the real driver of deficits: entitlements like Medicare and Social Security.

Ryan is also banking on the fact that this bill has a number of policy priorities conservatives support. Lawmakers from Texas, Florida and California will likely vote for it because of disaster aid. It raises defense by more than it raises nondomestic spending for the first time. It spends money on veterans programs. And it cuts off some money to Obamacare, which could save federal money in the long run.

In the worst-case scenario for Ryan, this spending deal could put his speakership at risk

A chunk of conservatives, led by the three-dozen-strong House Freedom Caucus, abhor this budget. They want to cut spending, not raise it by half a trillion dollars. (“This spending bill is a debt junkie’s dream,” Rep. Mo Brooks, an Alabama Republican, told my colleagues. “I’m not only a no; I’m a hell, no.”)

Ryan is banking that not everyone in this group will vote against it. If true, that would be a huge victory for him. Earlier this week, they enthusiastically voted for a short-term spending bill that increases defense spending by a similar amount that this long-term spending bill does. And Ryan has the backing of perhaps the one person in Washington this group is most inclined to listen to: the president.

But some Republicans will certainly vote no. The question for Ryan is whether those same Republicans will be angry enough that they'll carry their grudge over this spending bill into the next year and vote against him for being speaker.

“If he doesn’t go with [House conservatives] he may find that running for reelection as speaker isn’t a great idea,” warned nonpartisan budget expert Stan Collender.