Paul Ryan's big, tricky budget moment is here

It's not nearly as simple as "deal or no deal?"

Paul Ryan
(Image credit: (Alex Wong/Getty Images))

Congress has been historically inactive this year. But with the clock winding down on 2013, there is still a glimmer of hope that bicameral negotiations could produce a modest budget deal that would replace some of the sequester cuts.

For Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the House GOP budget guru and potential presidential aspirant, that presents both an opportunity and a challenge. A bipartisan deal could serve as a rare (for him) legislative achievement that pads his credentials and charts the GOP's course heading into the next election cycle. Yet at the same time, Ryan would risk spurning the GOP base — and its vocal Ted Cruz types — if he's perceived as bending too far to Democratic demands.

Ryan and his Senate counterpart Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) are believed to be close to a very small deal that would eliminate some of the automatic budget cuts scheduled to go into effect over the next two years. Though nothing is finalized, the deal would reportedly nix about one-third of the sequester-mandated cuts, splitting the reinstated funds between defense and non-defense spending.

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Since Republicans won't go for tax increases, and Democrats won't tackle entitlement reform without also touching revenue, Murray and Ryan have been reduced to "pulling together odds and ends to make a deal, including non-tax revenue like auctioning broadband spectrum and airport security fees, as well as increasing employee contributions to federal workers' retirement programs," wrote MSNBC's Suzy Khimm.

In short: The negotiators are looking at a tiny deal, far less than the sweeping budget overhaul Ryan has famously proposed before in his spending blueprints.

Still, a deal would be a success for a Congress so dysfunctional it triggered a two-week government shutdown and flirted with debt default. Republicans would love to roll back some of the cuts to defense spending. And Democrats are eager for a deal that would wipe out some of the cuts to cherished domestic programs like Head Start.

Such a deal, if passed, would also be a significant accomplishment for Ryan to add to his otherwise unimpressive legislative record.

Though a noted policy wonk, none of Ryan's radical budget bills have gone anywhere in Congress. In fact, only two Ryan-drafted bills, neither of which were anything truly groundbreaking, have become law in the congressman's entire House career. One bill named a post office; the other amended a tax on arrows.

A deal would thus "burnish an image of someone willing to find — and tout — common ground in a historically divided Washington," wrote Politico's Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan. "It's a credential that could serve him well as he looks to grab the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee or run for his party's nomination before the 2016 presidential contest."

Still, an agreement almost assuredly wouldn't do anything about long-term GOP priorities Ryan has championed before, like cutting entitlement spending.

And there's the rub for Ryan: A small deal could turn off both conservative lawmakers and voters.

Conservative House members dug in on their impossible demands during the shutdown even as it obliterated the party's approval rating. Those same members could balk at a proposed deal that doesn't cut deeper. And though a deal could still pass with the help of Democratic votes, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) would risk further splitting his fragile caucus by cobbling together a Democratic-heavy coalition.

A mini-deal could also be problematic for Ryan's perceived presidential ambitions if it causes the party's right flank, which plays a disproportionately large role in the primary nominating process, to sour on him.

"If the Tea Party turns up the rhetorical heat, would Ryan risk a presidential bid to rescue the country from another government shutdown?" wrote Salon's Joan Walsh. "I've never seen him stand up to that kind of ideological pressure from the right, but there could be a first time."

If he's keen on keeping his conservative hero status and pursuing a 2016 run, Ryan really ought to tread carefully.

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Jon Terbush

Jon Terbush is an associate editor at covering politics, sports, and other things he finds interesting. He has previously written for Talking Points Memo, Raw Story, and Business Insider.