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Will Paul Ryan’s High-Risk Budget Deal Return High Rewards?

Ryan addresses his budget deal at a GOP leadership press conference Wednesday. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)
Ryan addresses his budget deal at a GOP leadership press conference Wednesday. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call)

This week is a turning point in the career of Paul D. Ryan — one that’s even more consequential than what happened to him 16 months ago.

Being picked to be the Republican nominee for vice president, it turns out, is only guaranteed to be politically transformative if your ticket wins the general election. Engineering a genuinely bipartisan if undeniably modest budget agreement, on the other hand, is sure to change the trajectory of the 43-year-old Wisconsin congressman’s life.

Ryan will find out within a matter of hours whether the deal has propelled his ambitions forward, or accelerated his long-rising star toward oblivion.

By Wednesday evening, a day after the deal was unveiled, a ratification vote by the full House looked more and more likely. It also looked quite possible that most of Ryan’s fellow Republicans would be on board, even though all the major conservative advocacy groups are pressing for its defeat. Those outcomes are the only legislative mysteries; a solid bipartisan majority is lined up in the Senate, and President Barack Obama is eager to affix his signature.

House passage would be profoundly rewarding for Ryan for several reasons, especially if his plan secures a majority of the majority.

Getting the bill through, no matter the partisan breakdown, would easily stand as the most important tangible legislative victory for Ryan during his nearly 15 years in the House, which have been largely focused on cultivating a reputation as one of the right’s great fiscal policy thinkers.

Passage would also demonstrate his willingness to start putting even modest accomplishment ahead of conservative dream-spinning — an important shift for anyone thinking about a run for national office in a nation that professes disgust with the gridlock borne of too-frequent fallbacks onto partisan orthodoxy.

If he can round up 115 or more GOP votes along the way, the Budget Committee chairman would also demonstrate he understands where the critical mass of his colleagues is, both ideologically and with regards to their interest in compromise. That’s a key claim to be able to make credibly if Ryan decides he’d rather remain in the House, with eyes on the Ways and Means chairmanship, if not right away on the speakership.

Moreover, most Republicans voting “yes” would allow Ryan to claim credit for breaking the miasmic tea party movement’s stranglehold on the House, which has allowed a minority of the hardest-line conservatives in the Republican Conference to dictate the terms for much of the past three years.

In that, Ryan has a newly vocal ally in Speaker John A. Boehner, who on Wednesday literally shouted down the opposition — some of it announced even before the deal was done — from the Club for Growth, Heritage Action for America, Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works. “They’re using our members, and they’re using the American people for their own goals,” Boehner barked at reporters. “This is ridiculous. Listen, if you’re for more deficit reduction, you’re for this agreement.”

If support in both parties unexpectedly collapses and the bill is scuttled by the House altogether, that would be disastrous for Ryan’s prospects of continuing in the congressional leadership much longer. The incontrovertible takeaway would be that his first big moment as legislative dealmaker was a flop.

Not a few Republicans — forced to head home for the holidays with the potential for a second shutdown looming in constituents’ minds — would surely begin talking about overtly excluding Ryan from the party’s election-year budget strategizing.

Such an outright failure appears much less likely than passage with the bulk of “yes” votes coming from Democrats. If most Republicans, especially in the House, vote against the modest prescriptions from their supposed fiscal visionary, that could well prove to be a serious limiting factor on Ryan’s rise toward the pinnacle of power.

Most immediately it would mean Ryan had lost the argument, at least within the congressional wing of the GOP, to the three other members who join him in having viable 2016 presidential prospects: Marco Rubio of Florida, Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky are among the Senate’s most vocal opponents of the deal.

Beyond that, losing the majority of GOP votes would mean Ryan has now positioned himself on the wrong side in the Republican civil war that’s simmering across the country. For these negotiations, he cast his lot with the establishment wing, betting he’d be more rewarded than pilloried for embracing the realities of governing — and the party hierarchy’s desire to call a budgetary truce so the election year might be much more about Obamacare.

Most colleagues voting against him would suggest he made a bad gamble, and that what still matters most to the Republican base is what the tea party thinks: Taking budgetary baby steps is pointless when holding out for a grand bargain that draws in the social safety net is still a theoretical option.

In a sense, Ryan decided he was ready to make this big gamble eight weeks ago, when he agreed to open negotiations with his Democratic counterpart, Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray of Washington. Getting out of the way of continued deadlock would have posed him no real threat. Instead, Ryan decided the time in his life was ripe for a high-risk, high-reward sort of moment.

In that much, he seems to have played it exactly right.