Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) may have prevented another government shutdown by brokering a small budget deal. In doing so, though, he may have also prevented himself from winning the GOP presidential nomination come 2016.
The budget agreement unveiled this week would undo $63 billion of sequester-mandated budget cuts over the next two years and raise annual spending to just above the $1 trillion mark. Savings would be split between defense and non-defense spending, with additional revenue coming from modest fee increases.
While party leaders and President Obama hailed the deal as a bipartisan breakthrough, some conservatives panned it for rolling back the sequester and raising spending. Ryan has enjoyed a sterling reputation on the Right as a conservative fiscal crusader, and anything that erodes that credibility could undercut a potential White House bid.
Here's Town Hall's Conn Carroll in advance of the deal's announcement:
if Paul Ryan puts his name in a deal that spends more than $1 trillion, his 2016 hopes are over.
— Conn Carroll (@conncarroll) December 9, 2013
Likewise, Todd Cefaratti, founder of TeaParty.net, told the Daily Caller that Ryan "can kiss goodbye any chances of running for president in 2016."
Influential conservative groups have also come out against the deal. The Cato Institute called it a "huge Republican cave-in," while Michael A. Needham, head of Heritage Action, said it was a "step backward."
On the congressional front, conservative Republicans circulated a set of talking points shredding the deal. Thirty House Republicans signed a letter calling on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to keep spending intact at sequester-mandated levels. The same conservatives who endorsed the government shutdown (unsurprisingly) panned the deal.
And underscoring the potential risks in backing the agreement, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — under fire from the right as a GOP "turncoat" and facing a difficult re-election — indicated he wouldn't support the deal either.
Perhaps more pertinent to Ryan's possible presidential ambitions, a trio of GOP senators also believed to be eyeing 2016 bids — Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Rand Paul (Ky.), and Ted Cruz (Texas) — all came out as "no" votes, too. If the budget deal becomes a conservative litmus test in the next GOP primary, only Ryan among them would fail.
Republican criticism of the agreement has focused on two main points. Fiscal purists are upset that the deal would raise spending, period. (Never mind that the agreement would set spending halfway between the sequester levels and what Democrats originally wanted.) In addition, some fear the deal, though it only undoes spending cuts for 2014 and 2015, would set a precedent for future negotiations.
"The actual numbers of the deal are less significant than the fact that the deal is undermining sequestration," wrote the Washington Examiner's Philip Klein, who argued that conservatives were "right to be skeptical."
"Thus, the agreement marks a return toward business as usual in Washington that the Tea Party movement was supposed to change," he added. "It represents a step back to the age-old practice in which Congress routinely unravels its own budget agreements when it comes time to actually make the cuts."
But Ryan could defuse the latter criticism by quickly returning to his old radical-budget-writing ways, which was what made him a party star in the first place. Furthermore, his budgets target the real spending behemoths: Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. His current concessions amount to peanuts, relatively speaking.
On another level, the GOP badly wanted to avoid another government shutdown, and Ryan came up with a way to do just that. He has framed himself as the Serious Man in the Room who can get stuff done when necessary — a leader, if you will.
Ryan is absolutely deified on the Right; one GOP aide told BuzzFeed that Ryan was the "Jesus of our conference." Would conservatives really jettison their fiscal savior just because he spared them another public debacle by striking a deal to raise spending by a little bit?
Perhaps that explains why conservatives have stopped short of calling for Ryan's head. Here's The Washington Post's Robert Costa:
The AM talk radio buzz: publicly "disappointed" in Ryan/deal, but privately, they're not going to launch a RINO campaign anytime soon
— Robert Costa (@costareports) December 11, 2013
Because Ryan started as man of movement, Kemp guy, and has been calling their rural stations for yrs, they're not ready to disown him
— Robert Costa (@costareports) December 11, 2013
Ryan still has the support of the party establishment, and the powerful Chamber of Commerce, too. That's partly because the deal is actually somewhat favorable to Republicans. As Ryan noted in a National Review op-ed Wednesday, the deal would still reduce the deficit and reinstate some of the Pentagon's budget without raising taxes. That's red meat for both fiscal and defense hawks.
Ryan is catching flak now from the right for reaching across the aisle. And while his most strident critics might never forgive him, most members of his party probably will.