Rep. Paul Ryan fails to close Republican divide

Rep. Paul D. Ryan, whose proposals reflect House Speaker John A. Boehner's interest in a deal that provides a "big down payment" on the nation's debt.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

Rep. Paul D. Ryan, the former Republican vice presidential candidate, has been a tea party favorite and a bridge between House conservatives and the party leadership ever since he took the lead in crafting a plan to scale back Medicare and other social programs to reduce federal spending.

But on Wednesday, when Ryan (R-Wis.) stepped forward to try to bring Republican factions together behind a strategy to end the government’s latest budget stalemate, some of the same conservatives who once trusted him went cold.

The complaint: His plan, which centered on trimming back spending on government entitlement programs, failed to mention the demise of Obamacare as a top Republican objective. Conservatives accused him of abandoning their cause and caving in to Democrats.


“So we are going to ditch the fight over Obamacare, which is extremely unpopular, to fight for Medicare reform? Really, Paul Ryan? And they think we are politically stupid?” wrote Daniel Horowitz on, an influential conservative website.

“This is the road to cave city,” he said.

The heated reaction showed how deeply divided Republicans remain in the second week of the government shutdown — with a week to go before the nation could run out of money to pay its bills.

House GOP leaders have been trying to shift the focus of their standoff with the White House and Senate Democrats away from Sen. Ted Cruz’s drive to stop the president’s health law to a broader plan to cut the budget. But partly as a result, the majority led by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) can no longer explain what, exactly, it is fighting for.

“There are a lot of ideas right now on the table,” said Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.). But he said Republicans hadn’t yet coalesced around one approach.

One way out would be a short-term agreement to raise the $16.7-trillion debt ceiling for a few weeks while both sides work on a broader budget agreement. Republicans are increasingly floating this proposal, but Democrats are wary that the GOP will demand concessions.

Senate Democrats are expected to vote this weekend on a proposal to suspend the debt limit through 2014.

Republican divisions over what they want from the White House have weakened their hand and made the stalemate harder to resolve. The party’s struggles could be seen in a new Gallup poll that put the GOP’s favorable rating at 28%, the lowest measure for either political party since Gallup started asking the question in 1992 — lower even than the GOP’s standing during the last government shutdowns in 1995 and 1996.

Ryan defended his approach on conservative commentator Bill Bennett’s radio show. “I don’t know that within the next two weeks we have a viable strategy for actually repealing Obamacare, every piece of it,” he said.

The conservative Heritage Action, which helped launch the strategy taken by tea party favorite Cruz (R-Texas), said any action short of a fight over the Affordable Care Act would be “detrimental.”

“Fundamentally, we are not supportive of anything that’s going to take the focus away from the current fight over Obamacare,” said Heritage’s Dan Holler. “That’s where we think the fight needs to be — that’s where the fight is.”

At the same time, top conservatives, especially those tired of the Cruz-led campaign, heaped praise on Ryan as the party’s expert on fiscal issues. “Excellent piece by @RepPaulRyan on a path forward,” tweeted Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), once a leader among House conservatives.

But two-term Rep. Mo Brooks, a Republican from Alabama, called Ryan’s brief presentation before the House GOP’s conservative caucus Wednesday “very generic” and walked away undecided on whether he would sign on.

“The devil’s in the details,” Brooks said. “Delaying socialized medicine — that is one way to delay one’s insolvency.”

As Boehner struggled to find a cohesive strategy, the White House sought to amplify Obama’s willingness to negotiate with Congress once it passes bills to end the shutdown and avert a default. The president invited every Republican in the House to meet with him Thursday at the White House. He held a similar session with Democrats on Wednesday.

Boehner, however, decided to limit the White House session to a few top House Republicans. One GOP leadership aide said that a broader meeting would be little more than a “photo op.”

The decision “disappointed” Obama, the White House spokesman said. “The president thought it was important to talk directly with the members who forced this economic crisis on the country about how the shutdown and a failure to pay the country’s bills could devastate the economy,” said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

Obama has refused to engage in serious talks until Republicans agree to reopen the government and raise the debt limit. “The president will talk to anyone any time and looks forward to their visit to the White House, but will not pay the Republicans ransom for doing their job,” Carney said.

Splinters among Democrats, who have publicly maintained an unusually united front, also emerged Wednesday, as liberals warned against budget talks that could result in steep cuts to cherished government programs.

Rep. Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has called those fears “grand bargain paranoia.” Democrats worry, based on past talks aimed at a so-called grand bargain, that the president might be willing to reduce Social Security benefits or increase the amount of money higher-income seniors pay toward Medicare.

But Democrats appeared unified Wednesday as senators rallied on the Capitol steps and House Democrats met with Obama. “The debt ceiling needs to be lifted. They’re not getting anything for that,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) as she left the White House with her leadership team.

The reemergence of Ryan, whose role had faded since the January day when he led rebellious House Republicans back from the brink of an earlier fiscal standoff, still holds the potential to shift the debate.

Ryan’s prescriptions, spelled out in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, reflect Boehner’s interest in a deal that could provide what the budget chairman has called a “big down payment” on the nation’s debt.

Ryan said Wednesday that he was “totally committed to dismantling” the healthcare law. “Obamacare is an entitlement just like any other entitlement. So that, as far as we’re concerned, is in this conversation,” he said on Bennett’s radio show. “Ultimately, we have to rethink all of our nation’s healthcare laws.”

Christi Parsons and Brian Bennett in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.