By Susan Davis
WASHINGTON - Paul Ryan stepped to a podium Tuesday night for a defining moment in his legislative career.
For the better part of the past decade, he has carved out a niche as a leader in the Republican Party based in part on the ideological purity of his budget blueprints, but this week he played a co-starring role in cutting a budget deal with liberal Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington.
The irony is not lost on the Wisconsin Republican. "It's a strange new normal, isn't it?" Ryan, 43, told reporters Wednesday when asked whether he was surprised by conservative criticism of the two-year budget framework.
The agreement sets top-line spending figures through fiscal 2015, partially replaces unpopular spending cuts with other savings and non-tax revenue sources, and offers some modest deficit reduction.
Further aggravating conservatives: President Obama supports it.
But Ryan has unabashedly endorsed the budget deal as a compromise in line with conservative fiscal principles and is urging Republicans to support it ahead of a Thursday vote in the House.
"I have every reason to expect great support from our caucus because we are keeping our principles," Ryan said in announcing the deal. "The key here is nobody had to sacrifice their core principles. Our principles are: Don't raise taxes, reduce the deficit."
It is a notable step in Ryan's congressional career. Until now, his legislative triumphs have centered on his non-binding budget plans that enshrined controversial conservative proposals such as revamping Medicare from a guaranteed benefit system to a voucher-like program that provides seniors with subsidies to buy health care in the private market.
His fiscal blueprints have passed the House entirely on Republican votes and never had the force of law, but they served as a battle cry for conservatives, shaped the GOP's fiscal message, and helped elevate him to the national ticket as Mitt Romney's running mate in the 2012 presidential election.
"I think he has unquestionably been our intellectual leader, not just in the House of Representatives on our side of the aisle but in the Republican Party on these types of issues. So he really is the smartest guy we have who has shaped our thinking, and he's come back and said, 'This is a good deal,'" said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who said he expected a majority of House Republicans to support the deal.
By comparison, only 85 Republicans voted for a January budget bill to avert a "fiscal cliff" that threatened tax hikes on most Americans.
Ryan's role in crafting the first bipartisan budget deal to come out of divided government since the Reagan era has taken some conservatives by surprise.
"I think he probably feels he did as well as he could do. I may not agree with that," said Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., a conservative who said he is leaning against supporting the budget deal.
Outside groups including the Club for Growth, Heritage Action and FreedomWorks have all lined up against the deal. These groups have held considerable sway in shaping rank-and-file opposition to prior budget negotiations - including those led by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio - and helped derail other efforts to find fiscal compromise.
With Ryan as the face of the budget compromise, the groups are finding a harder time getting traction within the ranks.
"I'm not sure that the outside groups are going to be able to influence us away from what really is a good step in the right direction," said Rep. John Fleming, R-La., a conservative who said Ryan's leadership in the negotiations has further brightened his future prospects in his colleagues' minds.
"I do think there is a high regard for Paul. He is the budget guru and I think he does bring a lot of credibility with it," said Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn.
Ryan is mentioned as a potential future contender for House speaker and harbors ambitions for the gavel at the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over the federal tax code that Ryan would like to overhaul. The current chairman, Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., is term-limited at the end of this Congress.
Ryan is also among a group of lawmakers - including Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas - who are seen as potential 2016 presidential candidates. Rubio and Paul have already come out in opposition to the deal, offering a point of contrast if Ryan decides to mount a bid.
Ryan demurs when asked about his personal ambitions, but he has said that running on the national GOP ticket last year made him less risk-averse.
"It gave me an appreciation for the moment we are in," Ryan said in January in his first media roundtable following the unsuccessful Romney campaign. "And so, as a member of Congress, it's an experience that has made me a lot less risk-averse from a political perspective and more focused on just doing what you think the right thing is."
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