The Washington Post

Paul Ryan’s political capital rides on ‘fiscal cliff’ negotiations

It was one year ago today that the deficit-reduction congressional “supercommittee” announced the Grand Failure that led to the looming “fiscal cliff.”

Washington was awash in disappointment and frustration at the budget negotiators who could not come to an agreement on reducing the deficit.

The one budget heavyweight seemingly unaffected was Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). Ryan, who earlier had been mulling a presidential bid and who dismissed the supercommittee’s chances so long as President Obama was in office, opted out of service on the panel.

Now, as leaders on Capitol Hill and the White House work to head off the across-the-board budget cuts generated by the supercommittee’s failure, Ryan finds himself central to the process and facing a different set of complications.

Ryan must now grapple with the consequences of a much higher profile after being selected as the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, in part because of his reputation as a budget cutter and spending reformer.

Many Republicans say Ryan’s new prominence makes his involvement in the upcoming fiscal cliff negotiations inevitable.

“Republicans want their best players on the field during the fiscal cliff conversation,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist and Capitol Hill veteran. “If Paul Ryan decided not to participate, it would squander his political capital rather than enhance it. . . . He talked so often during the campaign about the country heading toward fiscal ruin, and now he has an opportunity to engage and influence where the fiscal cliff goes.”

Last week, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) tapped Ryan and two other top committee heads — Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) — to take part in the House GOP leadership’s daily management meetings.

Beyond the next few weeks of deal making, there is the question of what Ryan’s involvement in the fiscal cliff talks will mean for his political future.

In the 2012 presidential primary, all the Republican White House contenders said they would oppose a hypothetical debt deal containing a 10-to-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases.

If he pursues a 2016 presidential bid, Ryan — who voted against the Simpson-Bowles commission’s recommendations in addition to declining to serve on the debt supercommittee — could well face a primary opponent who uses his involvement in crafting a deal against him, especially if it raises taxes.

Ryan’s office did not respond to requests for comment on his potential role in the fiscal talks. Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), a longtime ally of Ryan’s and a former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said Ryan will be critical in crafting a deal with Democrats and in rounding up GOP support for any eventual compromise.

“Nobody knows these numbers better than Paul,” Price said. “And then in selling it not just to conservatives but in making sure that the negotiation is put in an honest light with the conference . . . Paul . . . will have a big hand in that.”

Some Democrats say they see evidence that Ryan is intent on tacking rightward rather than on working the political middle.

“The fact that he comes off the campaign trail more committed to his way or no way does not put him in a position to reach compromise either within the Republican caucus or, even more importantly, with the Democrats,” said Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz (D-Pa.), who has worked with Ryan on the House Budget and Ways and Means committees. “It seems that so far, what he’s been doing has been reaching out to the right.”

They point to his decision to back Price over Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) in last week’s race for House Republican conference chair, the No. 4 spot in party leadership.

Price was regarded as the more conservative choice. Even inside the party there are questions about the political wisdom of Ryan’s decision to back Price over McMorris Rodgers. One longtime Republican operative mused that Ryan didn’t need help shoring up conservative support and that the move was “a huge mistake because it sent a broader message that maybe he didn’t understand the result of the election.”

“He just came out of a presidential election where they were pummeled on the fact that they were losing among women,” said the operative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the party’s internal politics. “For him to make that move sends a counter-intuitive message that maybe he didn’t understand, maybe he didn’t get it. It was like [Mitt] Romney talking about the ‘gifts’ Obama gave to minorities — that fell under that umbrella, I thought.”

Had McMorris Rodgers lost, Ryan “would’ve taken a majority of the blame for the fact that we’re starting out now with an all white male Republican leadership and making sure that a qualified Republican woman was not in the mix,” the operative said. “He still can have an influence on the conference because people trust him on fiscal issues. But on the political issue of last week, there are a number of Republican operatives who think, ‘What was that about?’ ”

John Feehery, a GOP strategist and former top House Republican aide, said the looming expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts, Obama’s victory Nov. 6 and the fact that “the polls have showed that we lost” on the question of whether the rich are overtaxed in some ways reduces Ryan’s political peril.

“He’s not going to be fighting for tax increases; he’s going to be fighting to save some tax cuts,” Feehery said. “It’s really a different story because everybody realizes the tax rates are going to be increasing. . . . President Obama has the veto pen. So for the Republicans, they’ve got to fight for as much entitlement reform as humanly possible.

“They are fighting from a position of weakness, which in many ways is an advantage for people like Paul Ryan, because they have to fight for the best they can get,” he said.

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