Can Paul Ryan Sell the Budget Deal to Fuming Conservatives?

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Well-heeled outside groups hate the compromise and are already talking revenge. J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Budget negotiators on Tuesday announced they had reached a bipartisan deal after six weeks of tense talks between Republicans and Democrats. Now comes the arm-twisting.

The leadership of both parties will have to convince their members to get on board. Democrats aren’t pleased, but they are expected to fall in line. House Republicans … not so much.

The budget compromise sets up a dramatic showdown between the Republican establishment in Congress and the Tea Party-style outside groups that hold so much sway over lawmakers. Since Republicans took the House in 2010, Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has catered as much as possible to the demands of the conservative wing of his caucus. But the budget fight puts the speaker and his budget chairman, Representative Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, very publicly on the side of the deal. Meanwhile, powerful, deep-pocketed groups like the Club for Growth are lining up to oppose it. Everyone else must now pick a side.

A lot rides on Ryan, and the respect he has among conservatives in his caucus. The budget chairman has spent years as a star on the right due to his budget blueprints, which slashed spending and reformed entitlements. The question now is whether that credibility will help him rally his caucus in the final days before the House recesses for the holidays.

“Paul Ryan is the Jesus of our conference,” a senior Republican House aide told BuzzFeed. “If Paul gives something his blessing, it brings the votes.”

But Ryan’s conservatism is already under attack. “In his run-of-the-mill voting record, there is no question Paul Ryan is a conservative,” conservative commenter Erick Erickson wrote on his blog RedState.com. “It’s just he sees fit to lose his conservative bona fides when high profile votes are on the line.”

Some of the staunchest conservatives in Congress have already come out against a deal, including Republican Senators Ted Cruz of Texas, Marco Rubio of Florida, Rand Paul of Kentucky and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

In selling to the deal to their caucus, Ryan and Boehner are stressing the fact that the deal actually lowers the deficit further than the current budget framework that would likely stay in effect without a deal. That’s the message Ryan gave at a press conference unveiling the agreement Tuesday night and stressed again to the Republican caucus in a meeting Wednesday morning.

“It reduces the deficit without raising taxes,” Ryan said at a press conference Tuesday. “Listen, if you’re for more deficit reduction, you’re for this agreement,” Boehner echoed Ryan on Wednesday.

Boehner and Republican leadership are also taking direct aim at the conservative interest groups trying to derail the deal. “You mean the groups that came out and opposed it before they ever saw it? They’re using our members and they’re using the American people for their own goals,” the speaker said. “This is ridiculous.”

On the other side are the moneyed groups like Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth, and Heritage Action and FreedomWorks, to name a few, who scare the daylights out of conservative lawmakers by scoring votes and funding primary challenges to Republicans who fail to follow their lead on every issue.

“Apparently, there are some Republicans who don’t have the stomach for even relatively small spending reductions that are devoid of budgetary smoke and mirrors,” Chris Chocola, the president of Club for Growth, said in response to the deal. “If Republicans work with Democrats to pass this deal, it should surprise no one when Republican voters seek alternatives who actually believe in less spending when they go to the ballot box.”

Despite the outside pressure, however, House Republican leadership is predicting that they will get a majority of their caucus on board. But whether a majority of Republicans step up to the plate or back away, passing a deal will still depend on Democrats also supporting the deal.

And Democrats are not pleased either. The deal averts $63 billion in sequester cuts over the next two years and funds the government for the rest of the current fiscal year (2014) at $1.012 trillion, about halfway between the topline spending numbers proposed by the House and Senate. But in order to offset some of the sequester cuts without raising taxes, negotiators dug into retirement benefits for federal and military employees. For civil employees, the cuts fall heavily on new hires while preserving pension contribution levels for pre-2013 hires. The deal also raises fees on air travel and cuts spending in other parts of the budget.

Perhaps most irksome, the deal does not extend emergency unemployment benefits, which are set to expire on December 28 and will leave 1.3 million long-term unemployed Americans in the lurch. Over the first half of 2014, millions more will lose their benefits. Democrats made a last-ditch effort to get an extension in the deal and were disappointed when it didn’t make the cut. Representative Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, who pushed hard for an extension as part of the negotiating team, expressed his support for the deal despite having lost the battle over unemployment benefits.

However, there is a recognition from liberal outside groups that the deal could be much worse.

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), which represents 150,000 federal employees, issued a tepid statement commending parts of the deal and expressing relief that the cuts to workers’ pensions did not go further than they did. “I am disappointed that the budget deal proposes increases to federal employee retirement contributions for new hires,” she said, “however, I am glad to see the numbers were significantly reduced from original proposals and that these retirement increases will not impact current employees.”

Despite the disgruntled left, there seems to be a recognition that without a deal, the government would continue to lurch from crisis to crisis, risking another government shutdown in January, and allowing the sequester cuts to wreak havoc on military and domestic programs.

On the right, however, many believe this deal is worse than no deal. “It’s a firm step in the right direction,” Ryan said Tuesday. The question now is whether enough Republicans will believe him. 

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