WASHINGTON — Rep. Paul Ryan appears to have done what only a week ago was unthinkable: not only has the baby faced conservative negotiated a two-year budget deal with a progressive Democrat like Sen. Patty Murray, he's convinced his fractured conference to go along with it.
Under normal circumstances the deal — which appears to have enough Democratic and Republicans support to pass — would at best be considered a minor success: it does little to address either long-term spending needs or drastically reduce the deficit, and doesn't include significant reforms to entitlement programs.
But in a Congress that measures success in how few days its incompetence results in a government shutdown, the Ryan-Murray deal marks a legislative high-water mark.
Indeed, Ryan has succeeded where his party's official leadership has failed since taking control of the House three years ago: Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, all of whom are master politicians, have tried, and failed, to cut agreements large and small to avoid another round of legislating by crisis.
"Paul Ryan is the Jesus of our conference. If Paul gives something his blessing, it brings the votes," a senior Republican leadership aide said of the Wisconsin lawmaker.
"There's nobody better than Paul Ryan. There's nobody more knowledgeable and nobody more principled that Paul Ryan. So that gives me a lot of confidence just knowing that it's him. The trust is high. I think everybody knows him and he's one of the most respected individuals in Congress period. By both sides," Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart said Tuesday, just hours before Ryan and Murray announced their deal.
It wasn't just mainstream Republicans like Diaz-Balart who were praising Ryan, even before the deal was cut. Conservatives — who have consistently been a thorn in the side of leadership and scuttled numerous bipartisan agreements — were also effusive in their praise.
"I'm very supportive of Chairman Ryan and I've been very concerned about sequester and how it effects the military … It is a real achievement. I'm as surprised as anyone. We've seen the 'Super Committee' and how they didn't come through," said Rep. Joe Wilson.
A key test for Ryan came Wednesday morning when he was charged with selling the deal to the Republican conference. There was loud applause heard coming from inside the room when Ryan concluded speaking, and even conservatives like Wilson and Florida Rep. Dennis Ross said they felt inclined to support the deal.
"I feel good about it, the more I find out about it," Wilson said. "He had credibility to begin with, but to be able to reach a balanced agreement that's beneficial to the American people, it reflects well on Paul Ryan."
That's not to say everyone will vote for it, but unlike with deals past, Republican members said that a healthy amount of conservative "no" votes wouldn't mean the death of the deal. Republicans readily acknowledge the vote will rely on a good chunk of Democratic votes, but Rep. Darrell Issa predicted the "majority" of the conference would end up supporting it despite staunch opposition from outside conservative groups.
"Conservative groups would like to get more, I'd like to get more. But if what we want to do is keep the government open and get a trajectory of savings for now, and then argue in the 2014 elections that we should be more willing to do more than this combination then that's the right thing to do. What Chairman Ryan has done artfully has gotten what there was to get," Issa said.
Following conference Ryan said that they felt very good at where we are with our members."
"We know that this budget agreement doesn't come close to achieving what we want to achieve on our ultimate fiscal goals, but again, if we can get a step in the right direction, we're going to take that step and that's why we're doing this," he told reporters.
House Speaker John Boehner was adament in his support for the deal, and in an a flash of anger, blasted outside groups for opposing the deal before they had seen it.
"You mean the groups that came out and opposed it before they ever saw it? They're using our members and they're using the American people for their own goals," he said. "This is ridiculous. Listen, if you're for more deficit reduction, you're for this agreement."
Ryan's recent success stems in large part from his deep roots within the GOP's conservative wing. Long before becoming a member of the conservative "Jedi Council" that has helped foment conservative outrage against previous spending plans, Ryan was a key figure within fiscal conservative circles in Washington. Over the years Ryan has developed a reputation amongst conservative and moderate Republicans in the House as a trusted voice on not only budget issues, but broader economic policy.
"The thing about him is that everyone knows he's a straight shooter, he's not going to play games. And that's what it takes," Diaz-Balart said. "Everyone understands what he says is real, whether you agree with Paul Ryan or not everybody understands that his word is truthful. In this process, he's among the most trusted."
Republican Policy Committee Chairman Rep. James Lankford, one of the most conservative members of the GOP leadership, agreed. "The level of trust is there because people know what his core is. We've all gone through budget negotiations with him, we've all seen the budgets he's put together and the coalitions he's put together to get that done. So we know he's going after as much as he can possibly get," Lankford said.
Of course, that's not to say Ryan's apparent success has occurred in a vacuum. Conservatives ideological intransigence over Obamacare and spending brought on the government shutdown and nearly sent the government into default. Republicans emerged from those crises badly bruised and facing what suddenly appeared to be a difficult 2014 election cycle.
And then came the debacle of the Obamacare website, and within weeks, Republicans were once again riding high — a feeling many aren't particularly eager to lose anytime soon.
Faced with a relatively small deal that, while increasing spending, reduces the national debt, it's a bit of a no brainer for many Republicans.
"The magnitude of the deal is part of it. The body is kind of smarting from the shutdown and that could be helping this process," Rep. Tom Rooney said.
A red state Democrat agreed, arguing, "After the shutdown, those guys don't want to lose the momentum" they've gained from the Obamacare episode.
Still, Republicans Tuesday praised Ryan's efforts, and predicted it could help him in a potential 2016 presidential run.
"He's showing leadership. 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's a unique way to become president but I think it might actually work," Sen. Lindsey Graham said.
James Arkin contributed to this report.