MADISON, Wis. — Rep. Paul Ryan's record runs deeper than his signature budget and Medicare ideas.
Mitt Romney's running mate is against abortion rights, has a top rating from gun-rights groups and backed sending troops to the wars. But in conflict with fellow Republicans, he's defended wage laws favored by unions. And he supported the auto industry bailout opposed by Romney and the bank bailout that the party's right flank now opposes.
Ryan's 14 years in Congress leave a long trail of votes for Democrats to pick apart, a process that began with gusto as Romney announced his choice Saturday.
Ryan's intense interest in fiscal issues – he holds a degree in economics and chairs the House Budget Committee – helps explain why those matters define him in Washington. But Ryan has always been a reliable vote on proposals dear to social conservatives, enough to earn him a perfect score from a key anti-abortion group back home.
This year, Republicans rallied behind his debt and deficit prescription to curtail federal spending on food stamps, Pell Grants for education and other programs. His debt-reduction proposal calls for cuts in personal and corporate tax rates, but also would pare back deductions and preferences that litter the tax code. So far, it has been little more than a GOP wish list that passed the Republican-led House but hasn't passed the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Ryan wants to fashion Medicare into a plan more like a 401(K), steering future retirees into private insurance plans, with a fixed payment from the government that may or may not cover as much of a retiree's costs as does the current program. It departs from the current "fee for service" framework in which the government pays doctor and hospital bills.
That's a marked shift in the social compact and not the only one he proposes. Ryan also wants to shift Medicaid to the states and sharply limit the growth of federal spending on that program. Medicare and Medicaid together reach some 100 million people.
His votes in Congress have gone against the grain at times. When Republicans have attempted to repeal federal wage protection laws for unions, Ryan has sided with Democrats in opposition. Even so, Ryan ardently campaigned for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who fended off a recall attempt spurred by state law changes cast as anti-union.
Ryan, whose district lost General Motors assembly plant a couple of years ago, supported the multi-billion dollar auto industry bailout started under then-Republican President George W. Bush and continued under President Barack Obama. Romney famously penned an opinion piece in 2008 with the headline, "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," arguing automakers could have gone through a managed bankruptcy and re-emerged without such massive help from taxpayers.
But there's no question that his budget and Medicare plan stand among the boldest ideas in Washington and present the fattest target for Democrats. Mindful of such sensitivities, Romney campaign adviser Ed Gillespie emphasized Sunday that as president, Romney "would be putting forward his own budget" as much as he admires Ryan's, making clear the presidential hopeful is not wedded to his running mate's proposals.
In taking his place on the ticket, Ryan lamented a Washington culture of timidity on the pressing issues of the time.
"We're running out of time – and we can't afford four more years of this," Ryan said as Romney looked on. "Politicians from both parties have made empty promises which will soon become broken promises – with painful consequences – if we fail to act now."
Obama's campaign said Ryan's ideas were the potentially painful ones.
"In naming Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney has chosen a leader of the House Republicans who shares his commitment to the flawed theory that new budget-busting tax cuts for the wealthy, while placing greater burdens on the middle class and seniors, will somehow deliver a stronger economy," said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina.
Ryan has taken thousands of recorded votes since coming to Congress in 1999, a minefield for any candidate let alone one aspiring to the White House.
Ryan also signed his name to 1,064 bills and resolutions over that span. Many deal with eye-glazing tax policy. Others aim to restrict abortion procedures. He's made a recurring push for line-item veto powers to restrain spending.
Despite voting solidly against abortion rights, he's given little indication, especially in recent years, that he wants to go to the ramparts on the issue. His litmus test has been budget matters, and he's been known to endorse candidates who see abortion differently, saying he is willing to agree to disagree "with mutual respect."
In 2009, he voted to prohibit federal money from being used to pay for an abortion or for any part of a health plan that covers abortion – except when the abortion results from rape or incest or when the pregnancy threatens the woman's life.
Many years earlier, he backed bans on so-called partial birth abortion that made an exception for the life of the mother, but not for rape or incest.
A number of his legislative actions qualify as parochial measures. For instance, he's sponsored legislation to modify tax treatment of archery equipment and ease tariffs on motorcycle wheels, clearly a nod to Harley-Davidson Motor Co.'s Wisconsin base.
The local touches don't impress Ryan opponents, who say he's padded his national reputation at the expense of his district.
State Rep. Peter Barca, a Democratic former congressman from southeastern Wisconsin, criticized Ryan's record and proposals as inconsistent with the pulse of the area he represents.
"He's an articulate, good-looking guy," Barca said. "He'd talk like a moderate in Wisconsin but it wasn't until his last budget that people saw how extreme his views are."
Still, Ryan has won seven congressional elections, most handily. He has never run statewide, meaning the campaign to snatch the Wisconsin electoral votes that went to President Barack Obama last time will be a test of his appeal beyond his back yard.
Bakst reported from St. Paul, Minn.