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Paul Ryan Debt Ceiling Bill: Why Did He Advocate Killing The Grand Bargain?

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WASHINGTON -- In its profile of newly minted, presumptive vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan Monday morning, The New York Times reported a new and potentially telling anecdote from the height of last summer's debate over raising the debt ceiling.

Ryan, the paper said, urged his own party's leadership to scuttle a grand bargain with President Barack Obama, in part out of concern that a deal may result in a second term for Obama.

Mr. Ryan’s enormous influence was apparent last summer when Representative Eric Cantor, the second most powerful House Republican, told Mr. Obama during negotiations over an attempted bipartisan “grand bargain” that Mr. Ryan disliked its policy and was concerned that a deal would pave the way for Mr. Obama’s easy re-election, according to a Democrat and a Republican who were briefed on the conversation.

(Emphasis ours)

The Times went on to note that "an official in Mr. Cantor’s office disputed the characterization, and a spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, who was also there, said he 'has no recollection of such a discussion.'"

So, who's right?

The answer, according to two Republican sources who witnessed the debt ceiling negotiations, is somewhere in the middle. Ryan, they acknowledged, did raise concerns about the political fallout of Obama and Boehner reaching a bargain that would see $800 billion to $1 trillion in revenues exchanged for spending cuts and changes to Social Security and Medicare. But that was the least pressing of Ryan's three main concerns.

"Boehner was negotiating with Obama. Ryan had gone to Cantor and to Boehner saying he doesn't support the policy, he doesn't think it could be sold to the conference, and, three, he thought it would guarantee the [president's] reelection," said a GOP aide who spoke anonymously in order to discuss private deliberations.

"There were certain people ... who thought the pursuit of the grand bargain was a useless pursuit because it could never pass anyway," the aide added. "Ryan was one of them. Ryan is opposed to tax increases. He's a policy guy. His primary concern was with the deal being constructed. And he went to Cantor and Boehner personally a few days [after the grand bargain was reported] and made the case that it was a bad decision all around. His final point was that the politics were bad too."

A second senior Republican congressional aide with knowledge of the debt ceiling negotiations made a similar point, while downplaying the overall significance of Ryan's political argument.

"So politics wasn’t the primary motivation (contra The Times), and in fact he had a policy disagreement with taxes. Breaking news alert. Sounds like The Times got a little out ahead of themselves."

In a separate exchange with the Huffington Post, Cantor's office firmly denied that he opposed the debt ceiling deal because of the political implications it would have for the president. As for Ryan's office, a spokesman for the Wisconsin congressman referred questions to the Romney campaign. The Romney campaign did not return a request for comment.

The anecdote would hardly put Ryan in trouble with conservatives. Many wanted nothing to do with the grand bargain both out of policy and electoral concerns. And the idea that political considerations entered into the debt-ceiling deliberations should be shocking to no one, save the few remaining starry-eyed idealists.

But it still doesn't help the current sale of Ryan as someone willing to shelve ideological purity for common good. That image is part of what the Romney campaign has tried to promote during the early days of the Ryan vice president announcement by pointing to, among other things, his collaboration with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on Medicare reform.

Ryan was mostly sidelined during the debt ceiling debates. In his public statements, he opposed the "grand bargain" on grounds that there were not enough spending cuts in exchange for revenue increases and that the reforms to entitlements wouldn't actually affect their long-term solvency.

"We never saw a paper from the White House on this by the way," Ryan said on Morning Joe in late July. "But the point is, the kinds of things they were talking about in entitlements were not their structural reforms that actually fix these problems and make them permanently solvent and that get our debt under control. They do take money from those programs and they buy you temporary relief. They would buy you a few years. They weren't the kinds of structural reforms that actually save Medicare, make Medicaid solvent, prevent the bankruptcy of Social Security. They weren't the real structural reforms. They were kind of the nickel-and-dime stuff that saves money, but don't fix the problem."

When the deal fell apart and Boehner and the president negotiated a separate bill to cut trillions in spending, both immediately and through sequestration, Ryan offered his support.

The exact nature of the role Ryan played behind the scenes will be fleshed out in the next month or so. One of the GOP sources quoted in this article noted that the Washington Post's Bob Woodward is writing a book on the debt ceiling negotiations and relayed that Ryan "sat down with him." The book is set to be released this fall, before the election.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated Democratic Senator Ron Wyden's state and party affiliation.

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