Ryan tiptoes along fiscal cliff’s edge

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has become the biggest political star in the House, but his role in the delicate negotiations on the fiscal cliff could dim his presidential aspirations.

Ryan is in a tricky position. He is advising Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in the talks and is expected to support his leader. Boehner helped Ryan secure a waiver to serve another term as Budget Committee chairman and has invited him to daily leadership meetings.

But if Ryan backs an agreement between Boehner and President Obama that falls flat with the party base, it could become a political liability.

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Ryan reportedly has been unhappy with the direction of the talks between Boehner and Obama. On Wednesday, however, he came out in support of Boehner’s fallback proposal to extend the George W. Bush-era tax rates for annual family income below $1 million.

“Chairman Ryan will continue to work to protect as many Americans as possible from tax hikes. Chairman Ryan believes that Speaker Boehner’s ‘Plan B’ meets that criteria,” said Conor Sweeney, Ryan’s spokesman.

The plan is the first proposal from the Republican leadership in years that would effectively raise taxes by hundreds of billions of dollars. It has drawn strong rebuke from some conservatives, who say a “yes” vote would be hard to defend in future Republican presidential primaries. 

“It puts Republicans on record to raise taxes, it doesn’t cut any spending, it doesn’t solve our deficit problems and so we don’t know why Republicans would proactively vote for a tax increase,” said Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, a conservative anti-tax group. “I think if you supported it then — I don’t know if it rises to the level of TARP, but it could haunt a future presidential candidate in a Republican primary.”

Some Republicans see a vote to extend only some tax rates as akin to the vote on the 2008 Troubled Asset Relief Program. GOP leaders, including Ryan, supported a federal rescue of the financial-services industry to avoid what they feared could turn into a full-blown depression.  

The Club for Growth urged lawmakers Wednesday to vote against Plan B and warned it would count on their congressional scorecard. 

Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), headed by influential conservative activist Grover Norquist, said the bill does not violate the ATR pledge. In a statement issued Wednesday, ATR said “this tax bill contains no tax increases of any kind.”

Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), an outspoken conservative who was recently booted off the Budget Committee for clashing with the leadership, predicted voting for Plan B would have repercussions in GOP primaries. 

Before announcing his support for the proposal to raise taxes on family income over $1 million Wednesday, Ryan had given his colleagues little indication of where he stood. 

“When I’ve been in the conference, he hasn’t spoken up,” said Huelskamp. “As the leader of the House Republicans during the campaign that’s kind of expected … but we haven’t heard anything from him in conference. I would relish what his insight would be.”

Some lawmakers think Ryan has become the highest-profile member of the House GOP conference with a promising shot at the White House.

“He left the campaign in the position to, number one, literally help influence public opinion nationwide and, number two, as a legitimate presidential candidate in his own right,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of the Budget Committee. “I have no doubt he is the best-known member of the United States House of Representatives.

“What he says and does has real national weight and significance,” he said. 

Ryan appears somewhat conflicted about how to proceed on legislation that would let some tax rates expire. 

The Associated Press reported Ryan has raised objections to the emerging deficit-reduction framework negotiated between Boehner and Obama. 

“I think he’s trying to keep his options open. And so it’s not clear to me what role he’s playing with Boehner and what he’s advising him at this point,” said Chocola. “I haven’t heard him say much.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ryan’s potential rival in the 2016 presidential primary, is undecided over whether to support Boehner’s proposal. 

“I prefer taxes not go up on anybody because I think it’s going to hurt economic growth. It’s not about protecting millionaires and billionaires, it’s about trying to avoid hurting the employees of a small business,” said Rubio. “I need to look at it more carefully, because my concern is the impact tax increases would have on small businesses.” 

House Republican sources say Ryan was disappointed the GOP presidential ticket fell short last month. Yet he has shown no reservations about diving back into the sometimes mundane work of the House.

“I think he’s disappointed, but he’s obviously excited to be in the battle of ideas,” said Michael Steel, a member of Boehner’s staff who worked for Ryan during the campaign. 

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) said he, Ryan and Energy and Commerce panel Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) meet with Boehner and other GOP leaders every day the House is in session to discuss strategy for the fiscal cliff. 

“He hasn’t missed a beat. He’s a valuable member of the conference and the Ways and Means Committee,” said Camp. 

Camp said Ryan has gained more influence since the 2011 deficit-reduction talks between Boehner and Obama. 

“On budget issues he’s always had tremendous credibility, and I think that’s only enhanced given that he conducted himself very well on the campaign,” he said. “I think he has enhanced credibility.” 

Cole, a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said he did not believe Ryan will take a political hit for supporting Plan B. Cole was one of the first House Republicans to publicly call for decoupling tax rates for middle-class families and the wealthy. 

“I think he’s trying to support the Speaker to do as well as we possibly can. I don’t think we’re worried about John Boehner cutting a bad deal,” he said. “A lot of people are shooting at him who ought to be on his side.

“It’s unbelievable to me that the guy who’s pushing to make permanent what are temporary tax cuts for as many of the American people as possible and fighting with every fiber of his being [is getting] criticized by the very people he’s trying to help,” he said.