By: Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan
December 4, 2013 05:04 AM EST
Paul Ryan’s bold budget documents have helped shape House Republicans for a half-dozen years.
They’ve been slabs of red meat to the Republican base but have served little practical purpose, as differences have only deepened with the Democratic Senate.
But now, he and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) appear to be closing in on a bipartisan budget deal. And for the first time in his 14 years in Congress, the Wisconsin Republican has a chance to shepherd a major bill with his name on it into law, giving him an opportunity to shape part of the 2014 election and, perhaps, his own political image as he considers a possible 2016 White House bid.
Despite holding the Budget Committee gavel and a prized seat on the Ways and Means Committee, Ryan has just two laws to his name: In 2000, he helped rename a post office in Janesville, Wis., after the late Les Aspin, the former Defense secretary; and in 2004, he changed an excise tax on arrows.
Over the next few weeks, as Congress pushes up against the December recess, Ryan’s influence in the Capitol will be put to a test. He will have to play a major role in convincing the same House Republican Conference that triggered a government shutdown to pass a budget agreement that doesn’t drastically change Medicare, Medicaid and other entitlement programs — the longstanding goal of Speaker John Boehner’s majority.
In doing that, Ryan can burnish an image of someone willing to find — and tout — common ground in a historically divided Washington. It’s a credential that could serve him well as he looks to grab the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee or run for his party’s nomination before the 2016 presidential contest.
Comprehensive tax reform or the elusive grand bargain, this is not. Ryan, Murray and their allies take pride in saying that the deal emerging is narrow and massively unimpressive. It simply sets spending levels for 2014 and 2015, and changes the composition of statutory across-the-board spending cuts by finding savings in other areas of the budget. It’s an attempt to return Congress to some sense of normalcy — but even that could provide Ryan with a political win.
“It’s a victory to be an instrumental part of something that is functional in Washington,” said Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), the chief deputy whip and a member of his party’s leadership. “When the entire nation looks at this town and says ‘I can’t relate to it,’ and clearly his ability to be part of putting something together that is even an incremental change is helpful. It’s something he’s been talking about — it’s consistent. He’s said, ‘This is why we’re doing these things. This is where we need to be going. This is this trajectory.’”
In a sign of just how paltry this deal will be, it will almost certainly leave aside an extension of unemployment benefits, a fix to the formula by which doctors get reimbursed for treating Medicare patients and a boost in the federal minimum wage — three issues that members of both parties would like to see resolved before Congress adjourns for the year.
Of course, a budget deal could fall apart — again — and Ryan could be left without much in the way of legislative accomplishments for this Congress. Similarly, there are risks to deal that doesn’t do enough — he could hear criticism about settling for another small deal.
But the change among Republicans is evident: A narrow, bipartisan deal is finally acceptable and an accomplishment that could move Washington forward.
“The big grand bargain is not going to happen. We’re going to take this with baby steps if we get anything and explain how we’re slowly solving the problem,” said Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a member of the Ryan-Murray budget conference committee. “In a football season, there’s Hail Marys and then you got four yards and a cloud of dust. It’s not as exciting, and it sure does score touchdowns eventually.”
One senior Senate aide close to the negotiations said, “Democrats won’t get revenue through closing tax loopholes and Republicans won’t get spending cuts through Medicare and Social Security cuts. So, [the deal is being crafted around] basically a bunch of fee increases and other assorted stuff.”
In a sign of progress in the negotiations, top aides to Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) spoke Monday about progress in the talks, according to House and Senate sources. The deal-making is between Ryan and Murray, though. When asked about the deal, and the implications, Ryan has generally waved off reporters, saying any answers would be premature.
Major hurdles remain. According to sources on both sides of the aisle, Ryan has been pushing for $20 billion in changes to federal employee retirement benefits, which is running into major resistance from Democrats. House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer and Rep. Chris Van Hollen — both Maryland Democrats and key figures for a bipartisan budget deal — have expressed adamant opposition to the provision.o
Republicans are counting on senior Democrats like Hoyer to help gather the votes to pass whatever deal emerges — and Ryan and House Republican leadership will need to whip up the rest of support. In some quarters of the Republican Conference, there’s skepticism that Ryan can bring along enough lawmakers to seal the deal. That’s in part because Ryan as a party savior is an act Washington has seen before. He was branded as the man who would help avert a government shutdown in October or help end it once it occurred (that didn’t happen), or persuade Republicans to support comprehensive immigration reform (he hasn’t).
But those close to Ryan say they’re quietly confident that his imprimatur — and the desire to finally end a multiyear run of near constant budget and spending showdowns — could attract upwards of half of GOP lawmakers. And even if some conservative Republicans can’t openly support such an agreement, senior aides say they believe they will give their blessing in private, making it easier for a package to get through the bitterly divided House.
There is significant chatter among Ryan’s allies, friends and Republican aides about the political implications of a bipartisan accord. Inside Washington, it will represent a thaw, but few think this will be something to brag about.
“He’ll present it for what it is,” Roskam said. “And what it is is incremental value and so this won’t be central to any claim. But being perceived as being somebody that could be part of a working solution is actually very helpful.”
Rep. Patrick Tiberi (R-Ohio), a fellow Ways and Means member, said it would “be a big surprise to the public that we could actually figure something out that we can work on together and get it done before the holidays.”