Washington is wondering: Will Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) cut a deal?
Ryan faces a crucial moment in his political career as the formal House-Senate budget conference gets underway.
Those who want to see a deal — a group that includes deficit hawks, appropriators, defense and farm lobbyists — say the popular House Budget Committee chairman can bargain.
They argue that if anyone could sell a compromise to the restive House GOP, it is Ryan, and say there is enough wiggle room to do a deal.
These sources argue the 2012 GOP vice presidential candidate wants to bolster his record as a legislator, noting he also got involved in immigration reform this year.
But to achieve even a limited deal by the conference’s Dec. 13 deadline, Ryan will need to back away from his original budget, which cuts $5.7 trillion in spending and has become a conservative touchstone.
“Ryan obviously is in a very difficult position. He’d love to be able to say that he was the Republican who got a deal done because that would make him look like one of the grownups in the party. But getting a deal means compromising, and compromising is a sin to the Tea Partiers,” said budget expert Stan Collender.
He argued Ryan will most likely decide his best choice is “taking his ball and going home without a deal.”
Cutting a real deal would mean losing the 2016 nomination but it “is possible if Ryan decides he’d rather be Speaker or Ways and Means Committee chairman than president,” Collender said.
That seems unlikely to conservatives who note Ryan voted against the debt-ceiling deal that set up the budget conference, along with every other 2016 contender.
“A Republican who went out there and increased taxes and increased spending to get a little bit of defense money would be eaten alive,” said anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. “The idea that Ryan would raise taxes instead of reforming entitlements is counter to everything in his entire life.”
Norquist said he is a “follower of Ryan” — not the other way around — and that he trusts him implicitly.
“If Ryan said that it was a good deal, I would probably support it sight unseen,” Norquist said.
Norquist argued that Ryan could strike a deal by holding firm, much as President Obama held firm during the government shutdown over ObamaCare, which Norquist opposed for tactical reasons.
Such a deal could, for example, include 10 times the cuts to entitlements such as Medicare, in exchange for a temporary increase in discretionary spending in the near term to offset the sequester, Norquist said.
Others say the revenue situation is not so black and white.
Centrist Republican Rudy Penner, of the Urban Institute, noted that a proposal to change the inflation index to the chained consumer price index would cut entitlement spending and also increase revenue by limiting the upward climb of the tax brackets.
He also noted that greater means-testing for Part B and Part D can be viewed as revenue and spending cuts.
“It wouldn’t be an easy sale,” Penner said. “I do think Ryan may be more willing to play the compromiser than he has in the past.”
He noted the hit the GOP has taken in its popularity.
“After the fiasco of the continuing resolution and debt limit, maybe compromisers will be looked on more favorably inside the Republican Party,” he said.
A defense lobbyist agreed and argued that the economic impacts of the sequester on jobs will force politicians, including Ryan, to do something.
“I think Congressman Ryan understands that the impacts of sequestration are starting to be felt,” the lobbyist said.
The lobbyist said Ryan would come under pressure from fellow conference members, including Pentagon ally Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), to try to do something about the looming additional $20 billion cut to the Pentagon.
“There are a lot of things that they can talk about. Farm bill savings, chained CPI …,” the defense lobbyist said.
A Democratic aide claimed the Democrats are willing to make “tough choices” if they can get needed revenue — and the pressure is on Ryan to accept that fact.
“Ryan has this image that he is a budget expert, but he hasn’t actually done any deals. There is still an open question if he can close a deal,” the aide said.
“He shares some of the blame for what just happened [during the shutdown] since he pushed the debt limit as leverage … if he wants to do a deal it has to be a bipartisan deal.”
But others said Democrats in fact would not cut entitlements in the end.
“Who would he cut a deal with?” the AARP’s Joshua Rosenblum asked.