Ryan’s speech to CPAC will provide clues to his 2016 plans

Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) speech to an influential group of conservatives on Friday will provide clues on whether he has his eyes on becoming president or chairman of the House's powerful Ways and Means Committee.

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The 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee is coming off a big week after introducing a plan aimed at balancing the budget within 10 years, and his Friday morning speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) will be delivered to his biggest live audience since the election. The address gives him an opportunity to discuss his budget in detail or lay out a broad economic vision of the country.

The Budget Committee chairman said on “Fox News Sunday” that he “enjoyed” being a vice presidential candidate and that the experience made the possibility of a future presidential run “more realistic.” He added that if he remains in the House, he’d want to stay as a policy leader and not run for House leadership.

“If I wanted to be in elected leadership like Speaker, I would have run for these jobs years ago. I've always believed the better place for me is in policy leadership, like being a chairman,” he said. “With respect to running for president, I honestly think that we have a problem right now. That's a budget mess. That's a debt crisis coming ... I got to think, do what you think is right, how can I help Wisconsin, how I can close this budget gap? And then we're through that moment, I'm going to give serious thought to these other things, but not until then.”

Those comments suggest he has his eyes on the gavel of the Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction on taxes, trade, Medicare and Social Security.

Whether Ryan spends more time in his speech focused on explaining his budget or striking a broader theme — like he did during his January speech to the Jack Kemp Foundation — will be telling.

After the 2014 election, Ryan will have to announce publicly whether he will run for president or Ways and Means chairman (should Republicans retain the House). He could run the committee and run for president, but such an effort would be impractical because he would need to constantly be on the campaign trail.

Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) has more seniority than Ryan on the Ways and Means panel, though Ryan would be the favorite should he opt for that route. The current chairman, Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), is term-limited as head of the panel. Like Camp, Ryan voted for the "fiscal cliff" deal in January, another sign that he might remain in Congress for a while.

“There is a tension between whether he wants to be a [Ways and Means] committee chairman or president,” said GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak. “He's going to have to make that decision in January of 2015, after the election, around the same time he would need to be launching a presidential campaign.”

The Wisconsin Republican has time on his side. He is only 43 years old, meaning he could be Ways and Means chairman and run for president in his 50s. But Ryan, a fitness buff, doesn’t think along those lines, noting that both his father and grandfather died in their 50s.

Some political observers believe Ryan’s speech can achieve both goals. After all, Ryan hasn’t ruled out a 2016 bid and keeping his name in the conversation for president gives him a larger platform to argue for his budget priorities.

Ryan appears to have enough support to pass his budget through the House, despite some grumbles that his blueprint doesn’t completely repeal “ObamaCare.”

Conservatives and GOP centrists are publicly backing the measure, which is expected to pass the House next week. Not one House Republican has publicly said he/she will oppose it.

“[Ryan] now has a recognition that a lot of people don't know what goes on inside the Beltway, and to get things done with the issues he's pushing he needs a national platform to do it,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “In some ways the budget may be boring to the media, but it's red meat to these guys.”

Citizens United President David Bossie said, “He’s a welcome voice and I think he’s going to give a wonderful speech about the future of our movement and that’s the same speech whether he’s running for president or [staying in the House].”

Yet, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — a potential rival to Ryan in 2016 — has recently been delivering speeches on a variety of issues, including foreign policy, healthcare reform and education. Rubio, who opposed the fiscal-cliff bill, is best known for his effort on immigration reform while Ryan’s niche is his budget blueprint.

Interestingly, Rubio didn’t mention immigration when he addressed CPAC on Thursday. That could be for a variety of reasons, including that the effort might fail in this Congress and because it has divided the GOP for more than a decade.