After 88 days in the spotlight as Mitt Romney's VP pick, Paul Ryan has stepped into the shadows (specifically, hometown Janesville, Wisc.) for the five-day House break – but that doesn't mean he's not taking phone calls and answering emails.
The topic of course is the fiscal cliff. He's the House budget chairman and the man many thought may come in as the new leader in the House, perhaps even his beleaguered Republican Party. During the campaign, he pushed cutting spending and stressed entitlement reform, despite the political risks.
The day after the election, House Speaker John Boehner, the man now at the center of the negotiations with President Obama, called Ryan, according to a Boehner aide, because the speaker wanted "to make sure he was in the fold from Day One," adding he's been a "close part of the thought process."
And an aide to Ryan, who asked that his name not be used, says the role of the Wisconsin congressman is as a "resource to the speaker, a resource to House Republicans."
"He has responsibilities as the House budget chairman, he has responsibilities to the first district of Wisconsin. He needed to be where the fight is," added the aide. Nevertheless he wants to be "deferential" to those leading the conversation -- namely Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy.
Since the lame duck session began, Ryan has attended the daily leadership meetings that Boehner, Cantor, McCarthy, and chairman of the House Republican Conference Cathy McMorris-Rodgers attend. Ryan -- along with Michigan Rep. Dave Camp, who leads the Ways and Means Committee, and Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, who heads the Energy and Commerce Committee -- is new to these daily meetings.
"It is a daily group conversation about what our positions should be and where they think we should be headed," said the Boehner aide, who also asked that his name not be used, said.
And it's as this type of resource to Boehner and other House Republicans that Ryan is comfortable being in the background.
It reveals an obvious struggle: one in which Ryan doesn't want to overstep his role, but clearly wants to keep his options open for 2016 whether or not the country ends up going off the cliff at the end of the year or averting disaster.
Ryan told Time magazine this week on the 2016 front that he's "decided not to decide."
"You can't hold on forever doing that, but I've decided to focus on my family and my job," Ryan told the magazine, although he had already started being eyed as a 2016 contender while he was a vice presidential candidate. He has openly talked about how he seriously considered a run in 2012, but finally decided against it, citing his three young children as one reason.
Of course, being in the background during these negotiations is also a role he's simply returning to. Much like the 2011 debt ceiling negotiations, the faces of the Republican Party were Boehner and Cantor, but Ryan was always contributing in the background.
"What you have are public negotiators in the leadership and beyond those principals there is a supporting cast of characters," another Ryan aide said. "Members ask [Ryan] his opinion: 'What do you think of this deal? Are we going the right route with not raising [tax] rates?'"
The aide said members, especially freshmen who look to Ryan for counsel, want reassurance before they sign on to a deal. "Are these the principals and values we've been standing by for the last two years?" members wonder, noting many of Ryan's goals including "real tax reform, getting spending under control, most of the House Republican conference have the same goal."
Boehner spokesperson Brendan Buck, who also worked for the Romney/Ryan campaign, said Ryan is a "valued part of those conversations that we have every day."
"He brings a perspective that is incredibly important and leadership that is incredibly important and we are going to continue to use his expertise as we move along and try to see where this is headed," Buck said.
The second Ryan aide described his boss's role as a "very good go-between the leadership, the whips, and the rank-and-file congressmen."
"It's the role he's played for years, but it's a little more pronounced now after the campaign," the Ryan aide said. "The members have respect for the work Paul did to advance the conservative principals over the last few years."
When asked if Ryan wanted more of a public role coming off such a high profile in the campaign, the aide said, "He's happy fighting for the best deal possible." His view has always been, added the aide, "How can I carve out the role that help Republicans get to a point where they are getting what they want?"
The aide acknowledged there has been "public consternation" about Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge, which Ryan signed, but for Ryan he "doesn't feel like his is a promise to Grover Norquist, it is promise he made to his constituents."
It's obvious that through this counsel and his high profile, Ryan would bring votes for (or against) an eventual deal with him. The same Ryan aide said "the goal is to keep … encouraging the White House that they need to acknowledge the elephant in the room, and the elephant in the room is spending and mainly spending on entitlements."
The aide said the goal is the "best deal possible" and they know that may mean holding off on important issues to Ryan, like entitlement reform as long as any deal "keep(s) the options open for a big ticket proposal. Problems aren't getting smaller, there's always going to be an attitude and an appetite to reform these issues."
And while Ryan is home with his family in Janesville, Wisconsin for a five day legislative break the aide says he is "constantly" on both e mail and the phone with "constant communication between the leadership committee and Ryan," or Ryan and "members who want to pick his brain about x,y,z."
A Republican strategist who worked on the Santorum 2012 campaign, Matt Beynon, acknowledges that the position Ryan finds himself in is a "tough spot."
"I think 2016 feeds into it," Beynon who now heads up Madison Strategic Ventures said about Ryan, but added other members who face re-election as well face a tough decision on possibly caving on taxes or going over the cliff.
"Members of Congress who are in a position to take a vote on a resolution for the fiscal cliff, they are in the position they need to stand firm on their principals on, How do we raise revenues without raising tax rates and as conservatives we believe we increase revenues by growing the economy, not raising rates," Beynon said. "These folks are in a tricky position. They have a choice. Do they want to be leaders in coming to that resolution or will they be forced to take a vote that may not align with their conservative principals?"
The House of Representatives is back in session Tuesday and that's when Ryan will continue his in-person wheeling and dealing, as well as some much-needed counsel for his GOP colleagues.
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