For Ryan’s Next Act, Balancing Pragmatism With Politics

John Boehner

But when the vice-presidential hopes of Representative Paul D. Ryan were dashed this Election Day, he returned to the House of Representatives and last week helped pass a bipartisan tax deal sought by Mr. Obama.

Mr. Ryan’s vote in support of the plan, which raised tax rates on high income while locking in lower rates for the vast majority of households, was both pragmatic and political. In what he described as a “tough decision,” he backed what was seen by most in Congress as a piece of legislation whose passage was necessary to avert a fiscal crisis. Notably, his support aligned him with Speaker John A. Boehner, who voted for the measure. But it put him in conflict with his two fellow “young guns,” Representatives Eric Cantor of Virginia and Kevin McCarthy of California, the No. 2 and 3 House Republicans. The three men had been in virtual lock step on policy issues and wrote a book together.

It was the first in a series of votes on budget and deficit reduction measures expected in the coming months, all potentially reverberating in the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. A potential rival to Mr. Ryan for the nomination, should both decide to run, is Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who was among only eight senators to vote no, the first clear demarcation between the two men since the election.

(Before the vote, when asked by a reporter if Mr. Rubio’s “no” vote would influence his own, Mr. Ryan laughed and said, “Give me a break!” according to a recounting on Twitter.)

Congressional supporters of Mr. Ryan describe his vote as an illustration of leadership. As chairman of the House Budget Committee, he was motivated by the chance to make the lower tax rates for most households permanent, these supporters say. And as a legislator whose actions are watched closely by fellow members, they add, he does not have the luxury of taking a purely ideological stance.

Mr. Ryan, his supporters say, did not necessarily return to the House to start building a presidential campaign. Instead, he is interested in continuing to mix things up as one of his party’s leading voices on budget matters. He is interested in forging an even tighter bond with Mr. Boehner as the fiscal fights play out, they say, starting in the coming weeks with a debate over whether to authorize raising the government’s borrowing limit and how to avoid deep across-the-board spending cuts set in motion by previous compromises. 

“I understand why somebody would want to vote no, but I understand why we had to vote yes,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who voted in favor of the deal. “But leadership is voting yes when you need to, and we needed to, because if the bill had failed, the stock markets wouldn’t have gone up 300 points; they would have gone down 1,000, and all those guys pounding their chests would have folded like a cheap suit.”

He added: “I thought it was a very responsible vote.”

In a statement released by his office after the vote, Mr. Ryan described his decision this way: “Will the American people be better off if this law passes relative to the alternative? In the final analysis, the answer is undoubtedly yes. I came to Congress to make tough decisions — not to run away from them.”

Mr. Rubio, in a statement explaining his vote, warned that “rapid economic growth and job creation will be made more difficult under the deal reached here in Washington.” He added: “This deal just postpones the inevitable, the need to solve our growing debt crisis and help the 23 million Americans who can’t find the work they need.”

Those close to Mr. Rubio point to what they say is his unwavering allegiance to conservative principles and note that his sticking point was the tax increase on the highest earners.

“It’s bad policy that fails to address the real fiscal issues facing our country,” said Alex Conant, a spokesman for Mr. Rubio. “When it comes to taxes, we need tax reform that will promote growth. That’s the only way to solve our fiscal problems in the long run, and nothing in the package that was passed was designed to promote growth.”

Of course, it is always tricky to gauge the political impact a vote will have four years later. When Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards, as senators, voted to authorize the Iraq war in 2002, their positions were seen as a political no-brainer. Yet during the 2008 Democratic primary, Mr. Obama’s initial opposition to the Iraq war helped catapult him to the nomination.

Mr. Ryan’s vote, which lent support to Mr. Boehner, also places him squarely in a role he has long found comfortable: that of the dutiful Republican soldier. Mr. Ryan voted in favor of many large and contentious issues — the Medicare prescription drug plan, the bank and auto bailouts — and in the process cast aside conservative orthodoxy to support his party’s leadership.

His tax vote, however, was also a calculated one. He believes that the coming fights on spending and deficit reduction will fall squarely in his budget “sweet spot,” in the words of a friend. And with Mr. Boehner’s backing, Mr. Ryan has a better chance of influencing those debates.

On Friday, in a vote that seemed to move him closer to his image as a fiscal hawk intent on lowering government spending, Mr. Ryan joined 66 Republican members to oppose a flood insurance bill that would take on more than $9 billion in debt to help victims of Hurricane Sandy.  

“Paul has the long game in mind, so taking short-term pops at Boehner does not advance the conservative agenda,” an associate close to Mr. Ryan said. “He’s politically invested in his partnership with Boehner.”

Many Congressional Republicans said they understood both positions on the fiscal bill, and though Mr. Ryan incurred some anger online from the right wing, those in Washington said that the 2016 race would probably turn on larger fights yet to come.

“I just don’t think 2016 is going to be litigated through the lens of this one vote,” said Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist and former adviser to Mitt Romney, “because in a month or two, we’re going to be onto a whole new deadline fight, and there will be plenty of votes and plenty of areas where you can still build your political profile and your electoral profile where you’re a viable candidate in 2016 — the full body of work so to speak.”

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