Republican Ryan at center of budget fight

By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Paul Ryan has an inconvenient New Year’s resolution for Uncle Sam: slim down.

If the 41-year-old congressman and rising star of the Republican Party has his way, the United States government will go on a crash diet starting October 1, the start of the 2012 fiscal year.

Ryan, known around Capitol Hill for being a gym rat with a killer body mass index, is in a position to try whipping obese government spending into shape. He is the new chairman of the House of Representatives Budget Committee, which sets overall spending levels for the entire federal government.

A dozen years into his House career, Ryan has a reputation as a thinker and someone who is willing to take bold stands in the name of conservatism. His “Roadmap for America,” with its detailed fiscal proposals, is a best-seller among budget wonks.

“He is the single politician, in the face of … people sweeping the issue under the carpet, who was willing to get specific” on deficit cutting, said Maya MacGuineas, head of the non-partisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

What people wonder, though, is whether compromise is in Ryan’s repertoire, or whether his conservative, small government/low-tax ideology — he’s a big fan of Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand — is unbending.

So far Democrats are not seeing any compromise from him, if their reaction to his 2012 budget proposal is any gauge.

“Behind the sunny rhetoric of reform, the Republican budget represents the rigid ideological agenda that extends tax cuts to the rich and powerful at the expense of the rest of America — except this time on steroids,” said Representative Chris Van Hollen, the senior Democrat on the House Budget Committee.

Ryan, who says he had to “grow up fast” after his father died when he was a teenager, might be facing the toughest challenge of his political career.

Steering a budget through Congress is a daunting task, as members of Congress suffer heartburn when forced to vote on whether to spend around $3.5 trillion a year of “the people’s money.”

Following a quick rise in politics after working at a construction firm that his great-grandfather started in Wisconsin more than a century earlier, Ryan has his work cut out for him. He’s already feeling the pull of conservative Tea Party activists who want faster, deeper spending cuts than even some Republican leaders expect, while fending off shots from liberals.

The future of military spending, Social Security retirement benefits, healthcare for the poor and elderly, road and bridge building, airport security — all such funding is sketched out in the budget blueprint Ryan unveiled on Tuesday.

Foreign capitals and investors will keep close watch on the budget debate for signs that the United States might be getting serious about a national debt that already has breached $14 trillion — not counting this year’s $1.4 trillion deficit.

Ryan’s 2012 budget proposal aims to slice around $6 trillion in government spending over the next decade with a controversial plan to revamp the federal Medicare and Medicaid plans for the elderly and poor. Ultimately, healthcare benefits would be reduced, while tax rates for the wealthy, are cut.


When he’s not wearing his budget chairman’s cap or hyping his beloved Green Bay Packers football team, Ryan leads a House exercise group that tries to work out every weekday, aides said.

One of his good friends in the House, fellow Republican Peter Roskam, called Ryan “a fit guy who works out and is concerned about good health.”

But liberals are quick to point to votes Ryan has cast against a range of health-related initiatives: legislation expanding healthcare for poor children, Food and Drug Administration oversight of tobacco and raising fuel-efficiency standards for carbon-belching vehicles.

He is also staunchly opposed to President Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms, favoring more modest industry changes.

The former speechwriter for the late fiscal conservative Jack Kemp wants to slash government spending but not at any cost.

Ryan refused to back a massive deficit-reduction proposal floated by a presidential commission last December, complaining that it did not do enough to control rocketing healthcare costs and relied too heavily on tax hikes.

Even if Ryan and his Senate counterpart, Democratic Senator Kent Conrad, fail to produce a compromise budget blueprint for 2012, both men will hold sway over next year’s spending.

If Ryan insists on the deep spending cuts next year, it could set the stage for more battles with Obama this summer on the expenditure bills that will emerge from the House. The fight would spill over into next year, while Obama campaigns for re-election.

In public appearances, Ryan woos audiences by talking of an ideological choice confronting the United States.

One, he says, is sticking with an “opportunity society” the country was founded on. It limits government to core duties while letting the private sector thrive. The other, he says, is “demise” — a nation in decline as a result of rampant government spending, burgeoning debt and taxation.

The “opportunity society” Ryan says he’s defending has raised his profile lately. That is evidenced by some cars threading their way through Washington traffic recently sporting bumper stickers urging Ryan to run for president.

Republican Ryan at center of budget fight