Nearly a year after his defeat as part of the 2012 Republican presidential ticket, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan is getting back into the public arena, stepping into the middle of the shutdown and debt fights and preparing to speak Friday to a powerful slice of the religious right.
While some of the new Republican stars have shot past Mr. Ryan — namely Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who have used the high-profile stage of the Senate to make early waves — the government shutdown has moved things back into the wheelhouse of Mr. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican.
This week, the 43-year-old penned an op-ed laying out a path out of the mess, and is one of the key negotiators for House Republicans if Democrats agree to the talks Republicans have proposed.
"It is hard to overestimate the role that Paul has had in shaping the intellectual policy positions of the contemporary Republican Party," said Rep. Tom Cole, Oklahoma Republican.
"That is a very different way of going about business than some of his colleagues in the Senate who have not done the hard intellectual work. I don't see anyone over there that has come close to becoming this relevant in the legislative process or the intellectual process of moving the Republican Party to ground that it can stand on and grow," he said.
But Mr. Ryan's op-ed proposing to couple an increase in the government's debt ceiling with "common-sense reforms of the country's entitlement programs and tax code" was a loser among some grass-roots activists, who said he failed to mention halting Obamacare.
They said he left the impression that he was not fully committed to the Cruz-led push to demand government funding be put on hold until the law is scrapped.
"He doesn't mention Obamacare at all, versus these other guys who will say, 'We will do anything we can to shut down Obamacare,'" said Adam Brandon, executive vice president of Freedomworks, a conservative nonprofit group. "I kind of scratched my head when he is focusing on Social Security and Medicare when we are in the middle of a very big fight over the next big flawed program: Obamacare."
Add that to Mr. Ryan's outspoken support for legislation moving through Congress to legalize illegal immigrants — a stance he shares with Mr. Rubio but not Mr. Cruz or Mr. Paul — and some activists said he is not doing much to excite them.
"To say there is deep disappointment with Paul Ryan in the last few months over these various issues would be an understatement," said Sandy Rios, vice president of Family-Pac Federal and morning host for AFR Talk.
"One has to ask the age-old question: Has congressman Ryan been spending too much time in Washington so that he's lost the common sense of Wisconsin? We thought those deep roots would inoculate him from the insatiable search for compromise that is D.C., but apparently they did not," she said.
Mr. Ryan worked as a legislative aide in the mid-1990s before he was elected to Congress in 1998 and making the jump from legislative back bencher to head of the powerful House Budget Committee.
He is far less flashy than Mr. Cruz, who won his seat last year and delivered a 21-hour filibuster on the Senate floor this year. Mr. Ryan also doesn't have the charisma of Mr. Rubio or the ideological passion of Mr. Paul — both of whom were elected in the tea party wave of 2010.
Surrounded by reporters Thursday after a House Republican meeting on the debt debate, Mr. Ryan neither issued any pointed demands nor fired any barbs, but instead said he is asking for a chance to negotiate.
Some political pros said Mr. Ryan's more nuanced approach signals that he may be more interested in ascending the leadership ladder in the House than he is in trying to compete in a crowded field for the White House in 2016.
"My dad used to have a saying that, 'Things that are alive swim against the waves. Things that are dead sort of float with the waves,'" said Ken Blackwell, former secretary of state in Ohio and fellow at the Family Research Council, adding that people tend to think that Mr. Cruz and Mr. Paul are more likely than Mr. Ryan to challenge the status quo in a conservative-movement fashion.
"If he is positioning himself to be the next speaker of the House when that becomes a possibility, that would explain some of his moves because I don't think Paul or Cruz have any ambition to be the next majority or minority leader in the Senate," Mr. Blackwell said. "That would set in my mind the basis for them to have two different approaches."
Polls show voters put Mr. Ryan right in the middle of the scrum for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.
"At this point, no one stands out from the pack and Ryan is part of the pack," said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
Mr. Ryan has a chance to bolster his stock Friday among Christian conservatives when he addresses the annual Values Voters Summit via video.
"Our job is to preserve our values in the 21st century," Mr. Ryan will say, according to his office. "We need to completely rethink government's role in helping the most vulnerable. We need to completely rethink government's role in health care. That means we can never give up on repealing and replacing Obamacare."
Mr. Cruz, Mr. Paul and Mr. Rubio, as well as former Sen. Rick Santorum, are scheduled to speak in person at the summit. Only Mr. Ryan, citing the budget talks and the government shutdown, has said he will appear via video.
Mr. Ryan also is scheduled next month to headline Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad's annual birthday bash, putting him back in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.
"Paul Ryan is a thoughtful leader and is the one person in Washington who has come up with a plan to get America back on track financially," Mr. Branstad said. "I asked him to come to Iowa because I believe he has displayed excellent leadership in Washington in a time when tough decisions need to be made."
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