Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has a choice to make.
The Republican Budget Committee chairman is the most popular conservative in the House, and over the coming year, he will have to decide whether to seek a more powerful committee gavel, launch a bid for House leadership or take a risky leap into the crowded waters of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Ryan scored a significant victory last week when the two-year budget deal he negotiated with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) earned 332 votes in the House — a total that dwarfs just about any other fiscal agreement of the last three years. The Senate is expected to approve the bill on Wednesday.
Passage of the plan filled a missing resume line for Ryan, who had no major legislation to his name, and it thrust him once again into the national spotlight a year after he lost his bid for the vice presidency.
In its informal survey, The Hill granted lawmakers anonymity to speak candidly about Ryan’s future in the party. Some are encouraging him to run for president, some want him to challenge Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) for Speaker if John Boehner (R-Ohio) steps aside, and many others said Ryan is most likely to end up at the helm of Ways and Means, a powerful insider post with jurisdiction over taxes, trade and entitlement programs.
Nearly all of those interviewed wanted to see him front and center in the GOP.
“He’s probably one of the best spokespeople we have for conservatism in the country,” said Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. “As we saw in the last few presidential elections, you need a strong spokesperson who can actually explain conservatism in a way where people that aren’t just Republicans, people in the middle and even Democrats come our way.”
Scalise was one of several conservatives to praise Ryan’s leadership despite voting against the budget deal he struck.
“I want to see Paul continue to be a leader in the conservative movement,” Scalise said. “Obviously, he’s got a lot of options, because he’s incredibly smart and well-respected. He’s got options in the House. He’s got options in national office.”
Ryan declined to be interviewed for this article. His spokesman, William Allison, said only that Ryan is focused on his current job.
The eight-term legislator has long made it clear, both in occasional public comments and privately to colleagues, that the job he wants most is Ways and Means, where he could turn his controversial, nonbinding budgets into authorizing legislation reforming the tax code and the safety net programs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.
Ryan on Tuesday told The Wall Street Journal that he plans to lead the Ways and Means Committee in the next Congress.
The current chairman, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), will be term-limited out of the post in early 2015, and the consensus is it is Ryan’s for the taking. The post is big enough that it is unlikely Ryan would be able to lead the panel and run for higher office at the same time.
Yet many in the GOP establishment, and in particular the donor community, want him to think bigger and make a bid either for president or House leadership.
Ryan has shown little outward interest in becoming Speaker, but a group of members wary of Cantor want him to replace Boehner if he retires after 2014.
“Does the institution need Paul Ryan as Speaker? I think it does,” said one House Republican who believes allies would have to persuade Ryan to jump into the Speaker’s race.
The lawmaker argued that Ryan could be a consensus choice for the party, bridging the divide between pragmatists who won’t support a conservative firebrand and hard-line conservatives who believe Cantor is too closely linked to Boehner, whose proposals they have opposed.
Another member, citing Ryan’s popularity, said he could easily leapfrog Cantor and other members of the leadership team into the Speaker’s chair.
“He is pretty much the only one with a clean record as far as most people are concerned,” the Republican said.
Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) said he thinks Ryan is interested in running for Speaker. “I think he would be great. You can quote me on that,” he said.
Other Republicans, however, said Ryan simply does not want to be Speaker. The same family concerns that weigh on his decision to run for president apply to being Speaker, a post heavy on travel and fundraising.
“We were joking with him about it one day,” one member said of the Speaker’s post, “and he said, ‘Look, I like you guys, but I’m not going to spend all my weekends raising money for you.’ ”
Republicans are also doubtful Ryan would challenge Cantor and rupture an alliance forged when they comprised two-thirds — along with Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) — of the “Young Guns” triumvirate that helped the GOP win back the House in 2010.
The biggest variable for the Speaker’s post, of course, is that it might not be open anytime soon. Boehner, who has filed to run for reelection, said he intends to remain Speaker in the next Congress, if Republicans hold the lower chamber, and lawmakers see virtually no chance that Ryan would challenge him.
The race for the Republican presidential nomination, on the other hand, is expected to be wide open, and Ryan is starting to show interest.
He traveled to the presidential proving ground of Iowa last month and said he would take “a hard look” at a White House bid in 2016, once his current congressional term is over. A Des Moines Register poll released over the weekend found Ryan has the highest favorability rating of any of the Republicans mentioned, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Rand Paul (Ky.), and past Iowa caucus winners, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.).
Lawmakers close to Ryan, however, are skeptical that he will run. Ryan and his wife Janna have three children, and his friends say that his concern about the hardship of an 18-month presidential campaign is a genuine factor in his consideration.
“Paul has a young family and was apprehensive about putting them through the run for vice president,” said one House Republican. “Running for vice president is a walk in the park compared to running for president.”
At 43, Ryan could be a viable presidential contender for the next two decades or longer, leading some Republicans to conclude that he will wait to run until his children are older.
Members cited doubts about his ability to win a Republican primary against a deep bench of conservative governors at a time when public disapproval of Congress is near an all-time high.
“Honestly, I think Paul would struggle in a Republican primary, just because of the issues that drive a Republican primary,” said a conservative House Republican who is supportive of Ryan.
Another House conservative said the budget agreement Ryan struck, which has drawn fire from the right, would be a liability for him in a Republican primary and was “a pretty good sign he’s not running for president.”
A less-discussed factor in Ryan’s presidential thinking is Gov. Scott Walker, another popular Wisconsin Republican who is eyeing a White House bid. Ryan allies in the House said he would not run against Walker in 2016.
A GOP lawmaker who has known Ryan for years said he believes it would be awhile before the Wisconsin Republican closed the door on any of his options.
“I think Paul’s just trying to do the right thing one step at time, regardless of what it means or what people think it means,” the member said. “And I think long term, it helps him.”
Despite the high regard most House Republicans have for Ryan, complaints about his voting record have popped up. He joined Boehner in voting for the “fiscal cliff” legislation that a majority of House Republicans opposed in January, but he broke with the party leadership, when he joined the bulk of rank-and-file members in opposing legislation that reopened the government and raised the debt ceiling in October.
Members of the Agriculture Committee also took notice when Ryan helped defeat the original version of the farm bill they drafted in accordance with the budget he authored.
“As a member of the [Agriculture] Committee, it bothers me when a chairman of a major committee votes against a piece of legislation that comes out of the committee when we’ve been working three years on it, and we’ve met their budget number,” Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.) said. “That doesn’t mean I won’t vote for him for a higher position. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect him.”
Bernie Becker, Bob Cusack, Molly K. Hooper, Peter Schroeder and Erik Wasson contributed.