There's been one major name offstage during the national soap opera (some say tragedy) that the pitched partisan budget battle has become—Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan.
In the weeks leading up to the government shutdown deadline on Oct. 1, Republican and Democratic leaders spent their public time volleying demands across the capitol, negotiating through the media and organizing noisy political stunts that were more focused on ensuring the other guys took blame than reaching a solution.
Amid the sound and fury over the shutdown and the doomsday predictions if the government fails to increase the nation's debt ceiling, Ryan has taken a different approach.
Unlike some of his colleagues, Ryan has gotten religion — on democracy. His strategy in the wake of President Barack Obama's re-election is to emphasize pragmatic reforms that both parties already support rather than driving initiatives that can never pass in divided government.
As the chairman of the House Budget Committee, Ryan has been quietly working behind the scenes with his counterpart in the upper chamber, Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the top Democrat in the Senate’s budget committee. For months, they have held private meetings at least once every two weeks in an effort to hammer out a budget deal.
The new battle in Washington — raising the federal government’s self-imposed debt ceiling so it can pay its bills on time — could present a rare opportunity for them to find common ground. Both the House and Senate have passed individual budget resolutions, and the looming threat of default offers a chance to force Republicans and Democrats to seek reconciliation and reform.
For Ryan especially, it is a fresh opportunity to revisit his favorite policy topic, the federal government’s most costly programs, which he believes is vital to reining in the nation’s spiraling debt problem.
But this time, Ryan, who last year became the GOP poster child for a controversial Medicare overhaul plan, is taking a different approach.
Ryan has tried, unsuccessfully, to overhaul popular programs like Social Security and Medicare in the past, which left him bruised and beaten by Democrats who accused him of trying to take benefits away from seniors. During Ryan's vice presidential campaign last year, Democrats regularly brought up his entitlement proposals in what became a successful effort to tear down the GOP ticket. In 2011, a liberal advocacy group aired an ad showing an actor with a striking resemblance to Ryan pushing an old woman off a cliff in a wheelchair.
Ryan has learned from that experience. He has recalibrated his strategy in the wake of Obama’s re-election. Now, pragmatism is the focus.
“We have to deal with the fact that President Obama has a second term,” Ryan said in a speech to the conservative National Review Institute in January. “A second term will present new challenges to our side — and new opportunities. To take advantage of them, we will need something we occasionally overlook. We will need prudence.”
Nine months and a government shutdown later, Ryan wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal that outlined a blueprint that largely symbolizes that call for “prudence.” He also outlined a possible solution to the debt ceiling crisis. In his piece, Ryan proposed a series of reforms to entitlement programs and the tax code, such as raising the cost of Medicare for the wealthy, making Medigap plans more efficient, combining Medicare's Part A and Part B and reforming corporate tax rules. Many of those proposals have support from Obama and other Democrats, which is important to understand Ryan’s new strategy. Also notice that Ryan did not propose his “premium support” program for Medicare, which the Wall Street Journal said would “end Medicare as we know it.” The last time he made a push for that plan, which would effectively provide subsidies for seniors to purchase health care in a private market, Democrats absolutely crushed him for it.
By becoming an evangelist for entitlement reforms that Obama himself has proposed, Ryan thinks he can break the impasse, according to aides close to him.
In Ryan’s mind, these proposals won’t serve as a panacea for the nation’s budget problems, but they do represent something substantive that can be passed during a period of viciously divided government. And he thinks Obama will have little choice but to go along with him.
“It will be difficult for Obama to demagogue his own budget,” a senior aide to Ryan told Yahoo News.
To push these reforms through the Democrat-controlled Senate, Republicans have some major leverage. Democrats desperately want to curtail the blunt spending cuts mandated by sequestration, and the GOP leaders will aim to use that as a bargaining chip. It is foreseeable that Republicans could offer to ease the restraints of sequestration by giving government agencies more flexibility in exchange for Democratic concession on spending and the tax code.
But Democrats aren’t necessarily the ones standing in the way of a substantial deal.
As has been made clear in the battle over the shutdown, there exists a stubborn core block of conservative Republicans who have shown no interest in negotiating or compromising on their positions. Ryan has been busy working with them as well.
As a member of the Republican Study Committee, a large group of conservatives in the House GOP conference, Ryan is regularly in touch with the right flank of the party. Ryan is also part of a much smaller group of conservative lawmakers that call themselves “The Fab Five” who meet regularly in private. Each week, Ryan, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, Texas Rep. Jeb Hensarling, Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise and Georgia Rep. Tom Price get together to discuss budget issues and strategy. With robust behind-the-scenes support from those members, Ryan could possibly persuade enough conservatives to back his plan.
As the debt ceiling deadline draws closer, Ryan is also taking his message to the conservative base beyond Capitol Hill. On Friday, Ryan delivered a video address to the Values Voter Summit, an annual gathering of social conservative activists, where he emphasized pursuing a realistic compromise, a message that had a sharp contrast to the “Never Surrender” rhetoric during most of the conference.
“We have an opportunity here to pay down our national debt and jump-start our economy. You know, divided government is frustrating,” Ryan said in the video. “But our country is worth the effort. We have to make it work. Now, this president, he won’t agree to everything we need to do. A budget agreement — with this president and this Senate — it won’t solve all of our problems. But I hope it’s a start.”
A budget deal with Democrats that has support from conservative Republicans would be “a start” indeed — and could also provide Ryan, who is considering a run for the White House in 2016, with an opportunity to present a fresh face to an embattled party desperately looking for a leader.