WASHINGTON (AP) — To hear Rep. Paul Ryan tell it, a bipartisan group of congressional negotiators has the chance to take the first steps toward fixing a serious problem: a debt-ridden federal government facing an onslaught of retiring baby boomers draining entitlement programs.
If successful, "we'll restore confidence in Washington," Ryan said this week at the start of House-Senate budget talks. "The bar is pretty low right now. Let's see if we can clear it."
The 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee seemed to suggest a collaborative approach as he started formal talks with Democrats intended to reach a budget agreement by mid-December. The panel could be pivotal in avoiding another government shutdown in January when money is slated to run out again and a debt default in February.
From now until a deal is reached, how Ryan comports himself could offer clues about his political future — is he maneuvering for a House leadership position or for a 2016 presidential campaign? The 43-year-old Wisconsin congressman's remarks and actions in coming weeks also could signal which side of the ideological-pragmatic divide he favors — or whether he can straddle both sides — at a time of deep rifts within the Republican Party between tea party conservatives and more business-friendly, establishment Republicans.
As he usually does, Ryan is warning against drawing any political inferences from his words or actions.
"A lot of people just don't understand me," Ryan said recently in an interview with The Associated Press. "Look, I am not sitting in my home or in my office thinking about 'How does this help my personal political career years down the road?' I am literally thinking about what's the best way I can do my job today."
The budget negotiations offer Ryan both risks and rewards.
If the House-Senate panel fails to reach an agreement, it could put Congress on the path to another government shutdown. Any deal that Ryan helps craft could be used against him in a future campaign while simultaneously incurring the wrath of conservatives if it's viewed as too accommodating to Obama and Democrats.
Yet if Ryan helps broker a deal, even a limited one, it could give him more clout in Congress and allow him to make the case to Republicans that he pushed forward ideas to address the nation's big economic problems and end a pattern of governing from crisis to crisis.
"The difference between running for president and moving up the leadership chain in Congress, especially in the House, is that in the House you have to prove that you can get stuff done," said John Feehery, who was a top aide to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. "Sometimes that complicates things if you want to run for president because you have to compromise and that's not easy."
No matter which path he chooses, Ryan will be gambling that he's on the right side of the politics — and at a significant time.
He remains popular in his congressional district but has attracted two Democratic challengers who hope to unseat him next year and could use his budget work against him in his re-election race in 2014. And voters are watching him closely.
While support for him has not waned since Mitt Romney named him his running mate, "at the same time, people want to see answers," said Republican state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who lives in Ryan's district. If Ryan plays the negotiations correctly, Vos said the congressman could elevate both his position within the House and on the national political stage.
"People aren't frustrated with Paul Ryan as much as they are with the process," he said.
Ryan has spent much of 2013 trying to bridge the divide rocking the GOP: he urges fellow Republicans to be pragmatic while sticking to principles.
In January, he cited the merits of "prudence" in governing, encouraging conservative Republicans to "make decisions anchored in reality and take responsibility for the consequences." In August, Ryan said that trying to delay or replace the so-called "Obamacare" law by shutting down the government was tantamount to "swinging for the fences" and there were better ways to undercut the law.
During the shutdown, Ryan kept a relatively low profile and wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal that promoted several ways to increase revenue and cut spending, including an increase in Medicare premiums for the wealthy. It made no mention of efforts to defund the health care overhaul, which the tea party had demanded.
Ryan ultimately voted against the House plan to end the government shutdown and avoid a default, calling it a missed opportunity to address the nation's debt. Republicans say privately that position could help him in the budget talks, giving him credibility with conservative members.
"The caucus trusts him and knows he's a real conservative," said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist. "That is a super asset in this environment with the House."
During the panel's first public hearing Wednesday, Ryan described the talks as an opportunity to address the debt while interest rates remain low — but also made clear that new taxes would find no support from his side.
"I want to say this from the get-go: If this conference becomes an argument about taxes, we're not going to get anywhere," Ryan said, signaling that there were limits to his collaborative tone.