Emerging from a GOP caucus meeting Wednesday, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., wore a red-and-white striped tie and an expression of relief.
Hours before, the gangly and deficit-obsessed House Budget Committee chairman had proudly announced a bipartisan budget deal. Now, with House Speaker John Boehner at his side, he was enjoying a rare victory lap.
Republican leaders toasted Ryan for his hard work and dedication. And after Ryan shared his plan with his most conservative colleagues Wednesday morning, he still managed to maintain their respect (and applause).
After more than a month of negotiating, Ryan perfected a feat seldom executed by rising stars on Capitol Hill these days: the ability to compromise, yet remain a trusted ally of the party's base. The deal he struck with Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., is far from the fiscally conservative budget wish lists he bulldozed through the Republican-controlled House Budget Committee the last few years. The agreement allocates more spending in 2014 and 2015 than the $967 billion allocated under the 2011 Budget Control Act and replaces $63 billion in automatic spending cuts. Still, his carefully-crafted plan remains true to core GOP principles: It reduces the debt by $23 billion over the next two years and doesn't raise taxes by a single penny.
Ryan, of course, won't win every Republican vote in the House when the bill comes to the floor Thursday. But with his fingerprints on the rough draft, there were more firebrand conservatives willing to give it a second look.
"The only reason, at this point, I remain undecided is out of my complete respect for Paul Ryan," says Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo. "He has remained personally committed to conservative principles. He has remained personally committed to balancing the budget in 10 years. I am proud to serve with him. This will not diminish his standing in any way. He has been a marvelous soldier in coming to this agreement."
Outside the corridors of the House of Representatives, Ryan's future as a trusted fiscal conservative appears more uncertain. Conservative campaign groups like the Club for Growth, Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks and Heritage Action admonished Ryan's compromise.
And while the 2012 vice presidential nominee may still have an eye on the White House in 2016, his potential competitors are already running to his right. Immediately following Ryan's budget announcement, Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Ted Cruz, R-Texas and Rand Paul, R-Ky., all announced they would vote against his bill.
"There will be some backlash from the usual suspects on the far right, but those people were not going to be likely Ryan supporters anyway," says Republican pollster Dan Judy. "Most voters, including most Republicans, recognize the political reality House Republicans are dealing with and voters tend to respect and reward candidates who take tough stands and try to solve serious problems."
Even Ryan acknowledged the budget deal was far from what he would have crafted alone.
"As a conservative, I deal with the situation as it exists. I deal with the way things are, not necessarily the way that I want them to be," he said Tuesday night during his announcement. "We are in divided government. I realize I am not going to get [my way]."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., like many of his colleagues in the Senate, was still looking over the plan. But one thing, he said, was certain: The deal only strengthened Ryan's position as a presidential contender.
"From my point of view, he is showing leadership," Graham says. "If you want to become president, maybe instead of trying to please every faction of your party, maybe you should show the country as a whole, 'I can work with the other side on something important.'
"It is a unique way to become president, but I think it might actually work."