Is Paul Ryan Playing a Long Game?

The budget deal has shuffled the pack in the race to be the next GOP presidential candidate. Mary F. Calvert/Reuters

Much to everyone's surprise, the budget deal squeezed past both houses of Congress. But where does that leave Paul Ryan, the Republican who brokered the deal with Democrats?

Last summer, Ryan's bona fides as a fiscal conservative landed him the vice-presidential spot on Mitt Romney's ticket. Famous for his spending and entitlement-slashing budgets, Ryan was recruited to energize the conservative base of the GOP.

A year and a half later, with speculation already swirling about who the Republicans will field in the next presidential election, Ryan could find himself on the opposite side of the equation, having sacrificed his well earned reputation for fiscal conservatism on the altar of compromise.

The other top 2016 conservative contenders -- Senators Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz -- have spotted the chance to outflank Ryan on the inside. They have conspicuously refused to back the bipartisan budget agreement Ryan crafted and are poised to vote against it, leaving the Wisconsin congressman all alone on the budget issue.

"For Rubio, Paul and Cruz, this vote is about keeping the powder dry, pure and simple," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell. "They are going to have a few more tough votes most likely between now and 2016 and they just want to keep the powder dry."

This is particularly true in Rubio's case, O'Connell noted, because Rubio angered the conservative base when earlier this year he worked with Democrats on a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

But Ryan is far from finished. While his work on a budget deal marks a new entry in his legislative resume — one that will earn him few friends among Tea Party voters — to be seen to be reasonable was not necessarily a tactical error.

In many ways, Ryan's work hammering out a compromise, then seeing it through the House of Representatives by an overwhelming 332-94 vote margin, was a momentous victory. He can take credit for working with both sides of the aisle, ending the budget stalemate and putting under his name a major legislative achievement – not just another proposal.

"He is looking to make himself a problem solver on Capitol Hill," O'Connell said. "He's one of the few people, at least in the House, that can really take up that mantle because he's trusted by both conservatives and members of the establishment in the party."

As Representative Gerry Connolly, D-Virginia, said recently, if Ryan decides to buck ultra-conservatives and strike a budget deal, it would show "he's crossed the River Styx back from the land of the dead to the land of the living. He actually wants to be a legislator." But, as Connolly quickly noted, "There are risks in that because [the GOP] base doesn't like that."

One conclusion that may be drawn from Ryan's championing of the compromise budget is that he may not be planning to run for president — at least in three years' time. As one conservative House member told The Hill, the fact that Ryan pushed for a budget that is unpopular on the right is "a pretty good sign he's not running for president."

There are other ways for Ryan to move onward and upward besides running for the White House. He is eyeing the chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, which will fall vacant in 2015. It is a prominent perch from which he could not just outline budget blueprints, but actually implement his tax and entitlement priorities.

If Ryan ultimately decides to run for president, there will be other chances – including an fast-approaching debt ceiling fight in February – for him to mend fences with his party's conservative base. But for now, Ryan is content to bide his time and grow in stature and influence in the House of Representatives.

When budget negotiations began in late October, guessing whether or not a deal would ultimately be struck depended on understanding the motivations of Ryan, the Republicans' chief negotiator. Conservative commentator Norm Ornstein put it this way in an interview with Newsweek last month:

"What's Paul Ryan's bottom-line motive here?" he asked. "Are you looking to your own political future? Are you so driven by your deep-seated ideology that you just can't compromise a significant part of this away? Are you seeing this as getting away from what can be a potential disaster from your own party? How pragmatic are you?"

There are no clear answers yet from Ryan, but the picture is slowly starting to come together.