Paul Ryan's Fiscal-Cliff Dilemma: Purity or Pragmatism?

Ryan will press "very, very hard" on long-term entitlement reform, said Bill Hoagland, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who has been in touch with Ryan's staff.

If Ryan can wring concessions from Democrats on entitlements, it could help his presidential ambitions. "If he's running in two or four years from now he'll be able to say [the deficit was reduced] because of my insistence on entitlement reform," said Hoagland, who is now a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Republicans feel confident in pressing for long-term entitlement reform as part of "grand bargain" negotiations because polling on Medicare during the campaign suggested the issue was not a major liability for Ryan and Republican White House nominee Mitt Romney, despite a barrage of Democratic attacks zeroing in on the Wisconsin congressman's Medicare plan.

Eric Ueland, Frist's former chief of staff, said Republicans recognize that Ryan might have to cede some ground in the budget talks because Democrats hold a significant amount of leverage, given that they still control the Senate and that President Obama won his reelection bid. "What he does and what he's able to do is judged against the baseline," said Ueland, now a vice president at the Duberstein Group.

But Ryan's critics doubt Democrats will be able to negotiate with him. "Nothing we've seen so far under Chairman Ryan suggests that he's willing and or capable of negotiating bipartisan legislation. Hope springs eternal but I don't have a lot of it," said Jim Manley, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who is now at QGA Public Affairs.

Instead of seeing his national stature enhanced, Manley said he hopes Ryan will become an "afterthought" in the negotiations if he refuses to make any concessions. Alternatively, he could complicate Boehner's ability to negotiate a deal by presenting a challenge from the right.

But Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Congressional Budget Office director, predicted Republican House lawmakers would present a united front. "This is not a case where the administration's going to divide and conquer," said Holtz-Eakin, president of the American Action Forum.

Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist disagreed with the notion that the congressman would feel pressure to water down his own principles in order to portray himself as a pragmatic dealmaker. "He will be both a man who can sell a plan to the rank and file and can sell a no vote to Boehner," said Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform.

Steven Smith, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, wrote in an email that Ryan might emulate former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn, a powerful voice on national security issues. In Ryan's case, he could take a hard line during negotiations and only offer his support for a Boehner-backed deal at the last minute. For Nunn, this offered the appearance that he was careful and principled. But, Smith warned, "This is not an easy path for a prospective presidential candidate."

"First, endorsing a moderate solution risks alienating the core of the party," he wrote, noting that it was unlikely Nunn could have won his party's nomination for president. "Second, a long-term deal may take budget issues off the agenda and reduce the advantage that Ryan has over the field of candidates. Unfortunately, the alternative path, playing to the right and standing in the way of a Boehner deal with Obama, is not likely to be popular with the general electorate."

For now, Ryan is keeping his cards close to the vest. Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and a leader in the effort to get Ryan into presidential politics, professed no knowledge of Ryan's intentions.

"My strategy is to acknowledge Obama won, cut the best deal you can, and live to fight another day for big tax and entitlement reform," he wrote in an email.

As for Ryan's, people will have to wait and see.

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Rebecca Kaplan is a staff writer (White House) for National Journal.

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