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Ryan key in debt ceiling increase

Convinced GOP fence-sitters to back legislation

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Looking to gin up support for a short-term increase in the nation's borrowing limit, House Speaker John A. Boehner turned to Rep. Paul Ryan earlier this month to persuade rank-and-file lawmakers to temporarily back off the dollar-for-dollar spending cuts they had demanded in any debt ceiling hike.

Mr. Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, delivered, convincing some of the fence-sitters — first at a GOP retreat earlier this month, then at a closed-door caucus meeting last week — that waiving the debt ceiling for four months is the first in a series of moves aimed at putting Republicans back on the offensive in spending battles, and on track toward significant deficit reduction.

"We have a great deal of respect for our leadership, but I think we also realize that the Paul Ryans of this Congress bridge the gap that allows us the credibility that I think we need to take this very daring and strategic move and accomplish what I think is going to be necessary, which is a balanced budget in 10 years," said Rep. Dennis A. Ross, Florida Republican.

"I can't speak for the party nationally, but I think definitely within the conference, his stature rose," said Rep. H. Morgan Griffith, Virginia Republican. "People appreciated the way he handled himself on the campaign trail. He was out there fighting for the cause. I would think that that would be true nationally, and I think he's clearly a star in the Republican pantheon of stars."

Ryan speaks out

Democrats clearly think the Wisconsin congressman is a force to be reckoned with: Two months after trouncing the Romney-Ryan ticket at the ballot box, President Obama seemed to single out Mr. Ryan specifically in last week's inauguration address, taking a dig at the congressman's line about "takers vs. makers."

After keeping a relatively low profile since the election, Mr. Ryan fired back this weekend, defending his comment in an interview on "Meet the Press," and criticizing the president in an address to the Republican faithfulat the National Review Institute's "Future of Conservatism" summit at Washington's Omni Shoreham Hotel on Saturday.

"We don't want a dependency culture," he told NBC's David Gregory. "We want a safety net that makes sure that people don't fall through the cracks. That gets people on their feet."

One day earlier, at the National Review conference, Mr. Ryan said he has chosen to learn from the first loss of his political career.

"The way I see it, our defeat is all the more reason to lay out our vision with even more specifics — and with a broader appeal," Mr. Ryan said in a speech in which he called on Republicans to move forward with "prudence." "What I'm saying is, if we want to promote conservatism, we'll need to use every tool at our disposal. Sometimes, we'll have to reject the president's proposals. And sometimes, we'll have to make them better."

Mr. Ryan has developed a reputation as a budget wonk on the GOP side of the aisle, leading the charge for deep spending cuts and reshaping Medicare into a voucherlike program.

The fiscal road maps he has laid out have changed the political dialogue and even spilled over into the GOP presidential primary, where former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's fledgling campaign nearly imploded after he referred to Mr. Ryan's Medicare overhaul as "right-wing social engineering."

The congressman's four-month stint on the GOP presidential ticket, though, highlighted some of Mr. Ryan's political baggage — including his support in 2008 of the auto bailouts and the Trouble Asset Relief Program.

The top tier

Despite losing his hometown of Janesville, Mr. Ryan kept his congressional seat, and, almost overnight, the talk turned to the possibility of a presidential bid in 2016.

That talk puts him in the conversation with Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Ted Cruz of Texas, as well as Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.

Since the election, Mr. Ryan has endorsed the "principles" outlined by Mr. Rubio in his push for comprehensive reform — a pitch that includes some kind of path to legal status for some immigrants living in the United States illegally.

Despite the pleas of Mr. Christie, Mr. Ryan voted against two measures directing more money toward the victims of Superstorm Sandy.

And Mr. Ryan voted for the "fiscal cliff" deal that made George W. Bush-era tax rates permanent for 98 percent of Americans, and raises taxes on the nation's top earners — a deal that potential rivals Mr. Rubio and Mr. Paul voted against.

Mr. Ryan's vote provided Mr. Boehner with some political cover and helped ease the bill through the House, 257 to 167 — with 151 Republicans opposed and 85 in favor.

Mr. Ryan defended the vote, saying the risk was worth the reward of locking in lower tax rates for most Americans — something that Republicans failed to do on Mr. Bush's watch.

"In short, there was no way we'd get a better deal," he said, adding that without it, every taxpayer would have paid more. "Our economy would have gone into a nose dive. Once I came to that conclusion, my decision was simple: If you think a bill has to pass, then you vote for it."

The Club for Growth, an influential anti-spending group, opposed the proposal because it increased taxes on marginal income, capital gains and dividends, and delayed the $110 billion in automatic spending cuts — "breaking the promise made by Congress in 2011 to cut government spending."

Asked about Mr. Ryan's vote, Chris Chocola, the group's president, shied away from blasting the eight-term congressman. Mr. Chocola said that several conservatives — including Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, Mr. Chocola's predecessor — viewed the proposal as the lesser of two evils.

"At times, we don't see eye-to-eye on some of the votes, but shifting the conference toward entitlement reform is a real sign of leadership," Mr. Chocola said.

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