Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin showed Thursday what Republican leaders have known all along. If you need help uniting the party, Ryan's your guy. After he returned from the campaign trail, he took a hiatus from the spotlight, but aides on the hill say he's getting back into the game.
"He's the standard bearer right now for the Republican party," says a GOP Leadership aide. "He is one of the brightest policy minds in our party and a great communicator. The power of both of those attributes allows him to build consensus and get an end result."
Despite the White House putting their foot down on any negotiations to raise the debt ceiling in mid-February, conservative members of the Republican caucus still threatened brinkmanship; no debt ceiling increase without dollar for dollar spending cuts.
Thursday, Ryan injected a dose of political reality into the GOP rank-and-file, reminding them that breaching the debt ceiling would lead to credit downgrades, financial chaos and diving poll numbers for the party. The party announced it will vote on a short-term debt deal next week.
"Our goal is to make sure that our members understand all of the deadlines that are coming, all the consequences of those deadlines that are coming, in order so that we can make a better-informed decision bout how to move and how to proceed," Ryan told reporters outside a meeting at the GOP retreat in Williamsburg, Va. "We're discussing the possible virtue of a short-term debt limit extension so that we have a better chance of getting the Senate and the White House involved in discussions in March."
If they don't negotiate on raising the debt ceiling, the GOP will have plenty of chances down the road to get its spending cuts.
The country is bumping up against three looming financial deadlines. The debt ceiling crisis slated to hit in February, automatic budget cuts, which begin the first week of March and a continuing resolution that will need to be passed to keep the lights on in the federal government by the end of March.
And Ryan might be the only guy who can lead the entire GOP caucus through the upcoming battles united.
Ryan's gained a reputation on the hill of being omnipresent. From the time he gets up, he's talking to members, working out with them, dining with them, meeting with them in conference rooms and chatting them up on the floor.
"He is literally everywhere, and that is part of what makes him a huge asset to the conference," the GOP leadership aide says.
If past is prologue, Ryan is a salesman. His 2012 budget, the Pathway to Prosperity, attracted more GOP support than any budget plan in more than a decade. And not because members loved it on first sight, but because Ryan sold it. Throughout the process, members would usher in, sometimes multiple times, to listen and discuss Ryan's plans for entitlement reform and spending cuts.
"It was a great open dialogue and friendly debate. It was a testament to Ryan's ability to win people over," the leadership aide says. "He is a charts and graph kind of guy. He lays out everything and a lot of people respect that about him."
All three upcoming fiscal fights will be nasty enough, which is why experts say someone like Ryan will need to unite a splintered GOP.
The GOP retreat reminded members of the obstacles ahead. Domino's CEO Patrick Doyle who knows about bad PR, spoke. The brand landed in hot water in 2009 after two employees video taped themselves placing pizza toppings in their nasal passages. Doyle shared with members how they can move forward and re-brand themselves. Pollsters reminded members how rape gaffes have affected their polling numbers among women.
It was a blunt reminder to a new freshman class will that could only add to the chaos unless someone can get them on the same page, experts say.
"This class is as conservative as we've seen," says John Feehery, former aide to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert. "We lost a lot of moderates in 2012. We lost the Steve LaTourettes, the Judy Biggerts of the GOP. I expect this class is going to put up a fight about everything."
To add to the chaos, new members won't see a shining example of agreement from their leadership. On the fiscal cliff vote, Speaker John Boehner voted yes, while Majority Leader Eric Cantor and GOP Whip Kevin McCarthy, who had to gather votes to pass the bill, voted no.
"It's not good. You cannot expect the conference to be united if the leadership is not. They have to make sure they have all their ducks in a row too," Feehery says.
What is not clear, however, is Ryan's future. Getting too far ahead and leading the party in a public way could hurt his ability to run for president in 2016, something Ryan says he has "decided not to decide."
"It helps him to be a leader of the budget committee because that is a good perch to talk about a lot of things. When you are the leaders of the party, you have to make compromises. When you are a leader of the party you have to piss some people off," Feehery says.