Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Budget Committee chairman, tells National Review Online that as the debt-limit negotiations continue, House Republicans should present Democrats with a “unified front,” pushing for spending cuts, instead of pledging to block an extension under any circumstances, which would “weaken our hand.”
“No one is interested in default,” Ryan says, when asked about Republicans, such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R., Minn.), who have firmly opposed raising the debt ceiling — the party’s “no” caucus. “But look, when someone says they are not interested in participating in this process, it does lower the strength of our majority to get spending cuts.”
“The debt limit is an opportunity to cut spending,” Ryan says. “There is no budget process, since the Senate is not going to do a budget.” Any bloc that fails to recognize this, he says, “weakens our ability to present a unified front and get more spending cuts.”
Last Friday, Ryan reiterated this message to his colleagues at a closed-door conference meeting. “I always talk about how we have to see the forest through the trees, and I reminded them not to forget about the forest,” he says. “We cannot have irrational expectations when we control one-half of one-third of the government.”
Ryan is hopeful that Republicans this week will be able to pass “Cut, Cap, and Balance,” a legislative package sponsored by the Republican Study Committee. “It mirrors our budget framework,” he says. “It also puts down the marker, showing the other side where we stand.”
But numerous GOP aides tell NRO that “Cut, Cap, and Balance” faces long odds in the Democrat-controlled Senate. Ryan acknowledges that buzz, but says little about the GOP strategy should it stall. “No one has hit the panic button,” he says. “There remains a strong appetite for cuts. [House Republicans] have already voted for $6 trillion in cuts, so folks are more worried about them being too small than too big.”
Beyond the details of any potential deal, Ryan says that he is very frustrated with how President Obama has handled the negotiations, especially in how he has painted Republicans as intransigent. Recent presidential press conferences, Ryan says, have notably soured the White House’s relationship with the House GOP, perhaps to the point of no return. Such a development, he sighs, is unfortunate for the country, which wants the president to work with Congress.
Ryan, who was elected to Congress in 1998, says Obama is a stark contrast to former president Bill Clinton, who often disagreed with House Republicans but for the most part respectfully engaged with lawmakers. Obama, he says, could learn a couple of things from Clinton, who knew how to negotiate in a divided government. “I was pretty new when Clinton was president,” Ryan says. “But I learned then that presidents serve themselves well when they say the same thing in public as they do in private, dealing with congressional leaders earnestly and honestly.”
“[Obama] has made it harder to establish trust, which will make it harder to find compromise,” Ryan says. “As much as he wants to come off as a leader, every time he talks about Republicans holding out to save fat-cat corporate-jet loopholes — which he knows is false — or leaks alleged spending cuts to the press, he reduces his leadership. He knows how that damages his credibility up here. Yet he continues to spin.”
Indeed, in almost every sense, Ryan says, Obama has been “fundamentally un-presidential” throughout the summer, “dragging his feet, failing to address the looming debt crisis — which he knows is coming — because he remains committed to his ideology.”
“This is, unfortunately, the way he operates,” Ryan says. “This is his pattern of behavior, this is his personality. For the next 18 months, it will probably be like this. It’ll be in-your-face class warfare, with bitter appeals to envy, fear, and anxiety, plus the demonization of the other side’s motives.”
Ryan, usually a happy warrior on fiscal matters, sounds resigned when asked whether he can help Republicans craft a long-term deal with the president to reduce the debt. Obama, he says, has made such a scenario near impossible. He cites Obama’s remarks to CBS News last week, when he said he could not guarantee Social Security payments, as well as the president’s “very personal” criticism of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor at the White House, as examples of the president’s inability to “discuss these issues in good faith.”
“Whenever I hear him speak now, I just shake my head and think, there he goes again,” Ryan says. “When it comes to actually governing, leading and fixing fiscal problems, he is not in the game.” He predicts that, with their votes this week, House Republicans will show that they are.
— Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.