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Ryan Walks Fine Line in Fiscal Cliff Debate

Ryan and other chairmen were tapped by Speaker Boehner to advise on talks

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
It’s unlikely Ryan would embrace a deal to avert the fiscal cliff that would include a rate increase because it could cast a pall over any future national campaign for him.

With possible plans to run for president in 2016, Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., has to carefully assess his approach to budget talks designed to avert abrupt, end-of-year tax hikes and automatic spending reductions set to begin next year.

Ryan — who chairs the House Budget Committee and was GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s running mate — was tapped by Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, a few weeks ago to participate in leadership discussions on the fiscal cliff, along with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich.

But the Wisconsin Republican, who has not made a decision about running in 2016, must be on guard in case any deal becomes an albatross that opens him up to criticism from potential presidential primary rivals or allows him to be cast as obstructionist in a general election.

“He must walk a fine line of being supportive of leadership while keeping a careful distance if the deal looks worse for Republicans,” said Ron Bonjean, a GOP strategist who served as a top aide to former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss.

“It is a delicate balancing act,” Bonjean, now at Singer Bonjean Strategies, said. “If the deal looks unfavorable to Republicans, he would need to distance himself from it in a responsible and appropriate way.”

Ryan declined to comment on his role or his political prospects.

But Bonjean said there could also be an upside if the deal includes any ideas from the Republican budget resolution he authored, which was passed by the House the past two years.

“If a deal includes solutions in the Ryan budget, he could claim some credit,” Bonjean said.

However, it’s not clear what, if any, those ideas would be. Democrats hammered Ryan and Republicans during the campaign over that budget blueprint, which included a proposal that opponents said could ultimately charge Medicare recipients more for benefits. The plan would turn Medicare into a voucher for future senior citizens.

Those budget plans helped launch Ryan as a conservative firebrand, eager to defend his ideas and happy to run on them. He became a tea party darling and was chosen by Romney, in part, because of his conservative bona fides.

“Participating in the talks is a plus because he is delivering the leadership that he campaigned on,” Bonjean noted.

Others agreed that the fiscal talks could be a good platform for Ryan in 2016.

“I don’t think Paul is going to have any problems, no matter what happens here, because he has put forward serious proposals. They are proposals that would work, they would heal our economy,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who is also a tea party favorite.

“I think he has done well for himself and he should be a front-runner for 2016,” Johnson added.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., suggested that Ryan needs to be seen as having accomplished something in the budget talks in order to derive some political benefit.

“My guess is that if he is viewed as someone who is successful in helping achieve an outcome, whatever he decides to do next, that would be good for him,” Thune continued. Thune has also been mentioned as a potential presidential candidate.

“I am sure they are going to look to him for leadership on this issue,” Thune said. “I suspect that Speaker Boehner will want to have him involved and hopefully have him onboard with whatever they end up with.”

Boehner has surrounded himself with Ryan, Camp and Cantor, in part, to make sure he has conservative buy-in on any deal from the get-go. Being more inclusive also insulates him from charges that he is brokering an agreement with the White House on his own, only to force-feed it to conservatives on the House floor.

One concern for Ryan is the issue of tax rates, which Democrats and Obama want to raise on households making $250,000 and above. Democrats argue that move would continue the tax breaks for 98 percent of Americans.

While Republican leaders have said they intend to hold the line on the raising of any tax rates, Obama continues to insist on rate hikes, and the GOP conference has shown some cracks in its unified opposition.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said he thinks the party should consider extending the tax breaks for the 98 percent because it represents an area of agreement with Democrats.

“I actually do believe that we should take things where we agree with the president, and we do agree on this, and take them off the table one at a time,” Cole said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.” “And this would actually, I think, strengthen our position in the course of negotiations.”

It’s unlikely Ryan would embrace a deal that includes a rate increase because it could instantly cast a pall over any future national campaign for him.

At the same time, if he is seen as torpedoing a deal, he could be held up as the poster boy for gridlock in Congress.

In a CNN/ORC International Survey poll released last week, 45 percent of respondents said they would blame the Republicans if talks fail, while 34 percent said they would blame Obama.

The showdown from last year over the debt ceiling also looms large — Republicans seemed to get a larger share of the blame then after the nation’s credit rating was lowered as a result of Congress’ failure to quickly reach a deal to raise the debt ceiling.

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