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Spending Deal That Helps Republicans May Hurt Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan
Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

U.S. Representative Paul Ryan put his political future on the line by brokering a budget deal blasted by the Tea Party groups that have shaped his Republican Party’s agenda in recent years.

In doing so, the Wisconsin lawmaker created a hurdle for his presidential ambitions, while strengthening his status within the House and positioning himself to possibly succeed John Boehner as the chamber’s speaker.

“The Ryan-for-Republican-nominee campaign took a step backward with this deal, but Ryan’s future in the House -- and even being a speaker one day -- took a big step forward,” Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist, said in an interview.

The deal, passed by the House 332-94 yesterday and expected to clear the Senate next week, takes off the table for two years the spending issues that have crippled Republicans in polls and contributed to the battle over control of the party.

“It saves us from ourselves,” Tom Rath, a Republican strategist in New Hampshire, said of the deal. “We can now have the argument on entitlements,” the funding of programs including Medicare and Social Security, “without the threat of a shutdown,” he added.

Ryan, 43, has said he’s considering a 2016 run for the White House. He was the Republican vice presidential nominee last year, yet his leadership position in Washington may hamstring his ability to win the nomination for the White House.

Several Republican strategists, including Steve Schmidt, the top adviser on John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said the party’s best chance to win is with a governor or former governor who can criticize Washington.

Party Clash

Still, there’s no stronger voice than Ryan’s for House Republicans on the budget, the issue fueling the party’s civil war. Tea Party groups have moved to oust senators who backed a budget that ended the 16-day partial government shutdown in October, while business advocates are mobilizing to defeat allies of the small-government movement.

Polls show that voters blamed Republicans for the shutdown. The party’s favorability was at a record low of 28 percent in October, down 10 percentage points from the previous month and 15 points below the figure for Democrats, according to a Gallup Poll. Republicans’ favorability improved to 32 percent this month, still trailing Democrats by 10 points, according to Gallup.

Though Ryan wasn’t a key player in the October deliberations to end the shutdown, fund the government through early next year and raise the nation’s debt limit, he became the House Republican point man in fiscal talks called for by that agreement.

Revised Cuts

Teaming with Senator Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat, the pair this week announced the agreement that lessens automatic spending cuts by $40 billion in the 2014 budget, which began Oct. 1, and about $20 billion in fiscal 2015.

The plan sets spending at about $1.01 trillion for this fiscal year, higher than the $967 billion required in the 2011 deal that set in place the automatic cuts. It also includes $23 billion in long-term debt reduction.

Ryan told reporters in Washington yesterday that he and Murray kept their “emotions in check and kept working at it” to reach a deal. “That’s the key, it’s just trying to understand each other, get to know each other and just talk things out,” he said.

The easing of the automatic cuts, known as sequestration, spurred attacks from groups including the Club for Growth and Heritage Foundation that, like Tea Party activists, push for smaller government and have exerted strong influence within the House Republican caucus.

‘Much Higher’

Boehner, who’s given no indication he plans to relinquish the speakership, responded by criticizing the groups’ campaign against the Ryan-Murray accord. And the margin by which it passed the House surprised many, including Ryan.

“It was much higher than I expected,” he said. “People are hungry to get things done around here.”

Club for Growth President Chris Chocola refused to scold Ryan personally for the budget deal that he worked to defeat. “If you’re looking for someone to bash or defend Ryan, I’m not your guy,” Chocola said in an interview.

While arguing that Republicans should have kept current spending levels in place, he said, “The problem is that Ryan didn’t have enough votes to craft the deal he wanted.”

Representative Devin Nunes, a California Republican who was an outspoken critic of party tactics that led to the government shutdown, characterized Ryan as “one of our rising stars.”

‘Knows His Facts’

He said Ryan’s political skills and knowledge of the government’s finances helped him win support -- or silence -- from Tea Party Republicans in closed-door meetings where the budget agreement was detailed.

“He knows his facts,” Nunes said. “He was willing to take any questions from the members, and many of the members who were going to vote ‘no’ on this were hiding. They didn’t even ask him a question because they do not want to know the truth.”

The agreement’s fiercest opponents included Representative Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican backed by the Tea Party who routinely criticizes Boehner and his leadership team. He said Ryan often serves as a liaison between those leaders and Tea Party-aligned members on controversial bills.

“Leadership will bring him in when they want conservatives to vote for something that conservatives don’t want to vote on,” Huelskamp said in an interview.

‘Spoils’ Milk

For Huelskamp, the latest budget may be one deal too many for Ryan. “It kind of spoils the milk on this one,” he said. “Name one conservative thing in here -- spending increase?”

Others see Ryan as maintaining a stronger following within the House Republican caucus than Boehner, of Ohio, or Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican.

“Paul is solid in every respect and even the people who choose to criticize him over this particular deal will be some of the people that will have enormous support for him with whatever he chooses to do in the future,” Representative Steve Womack, an Arkansas Republican, said in an interview. “It’s another example of Paul’s incredible ability to negotiate in a very responsible and respectful way.”

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