WASHINGTON — First, it was called the Roadmap for America’s Future. Later, it was the Path to Prosperity: Restoring America’s Promise. The next installment was Path to Prosperity: A Blueprint for American Renewal.
Each one could be called the Ryan Plan, for short, or the Ryan Budget: a single-minded — Democrats would say absurdist — quest by Representative Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, to drastically cut federal spending and taxes, transform Medicare essentially into a voucher program, partly privatize Social Security and abolish the corporate income tax, the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax.
Those sweeping budget proposals, the product of a young, heavy-metal-loving policy wonk’s obsession with transforming American fiscal policy, catapulted Mr. Ryan to prominence within the Republican Party. That led to his selection as Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential running mate in 2012. Ultimately, the plans went nowhere as a result of fierce criticism not only from Democrats but also many economists who said his numbers simply did not add up.
Republicans, on the other hand, passionately embraced them, and Mr. Ryan came to be seen as one of his party’s most influential thinkers on fiscal issues. His budget proposals showcase the thinking and philosophy of a lawmaker who many Republicans believe is now their best choice for speaker of the House, perhaps the only man who can dress and heal the deep gash in the House Republican Conference.
But Mr. Ryan’s personal dedication to fiscal issues could mean he might prefer to remain in the powerful, more policy-oriented post of chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, rather than agree to take the speaker’s gavel and try to corral the stampeding hard-right conservatives who chased out Speaker John A. Boehner.
Each of the fiscal blueprints Mr. Ryan presented show him to be among his party’s most ardent budget hawks, but as the country contemplates his credentials for speaker, he finds himself in the position of having hard-liners say he is not conservative enough for them, while even moderate Democrats find his views far too conservative.
“It’s almost amazing to see some parts of the right say Paul Ryan is not conservative enough,” said former Senator Kent Conrad, Democrat of North Dakota, who was regarded as a fiscal conservative among his Democratic colleagues and served with Mr. Ryan on the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, a bipartisan panel that failed to get Congress to adopt long-term budget compromises in 2010.
“In terms of where the country is, that’s absurd,” Mr. Conrad said. “It’s just absurd.”
Last year, as the chairman of the House Budget Committee, Mr. Ryan presented a fiscal plan that would have cut $5 trillion in spending over a decade, with major cuts in spending on programs for the poor, including Medicaid and food stamps.
His plan also envisioned repealing the Affordable Care Act, under which more than 16 million people have gained health insurance since 2010, and it called for increases in military spending but sharp reductions in nearly all other discretionary domestic programs.
“We need to be a proposition party, not just an opposition party,” Mr. Ryan said, announcing the plan in April 2014. “We believe we owe it to the country to offer an alternative to the status quo.”
Critics said Mr. Ryan’s plan would have been a disaster for low-income Americans.
“Paul Ryan’s new ‘Path to Prosperity’ is, sadly, anything but that for most Americans,” Robert Greenstein, the president of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal budget analysis institute, said at the time. “Affluent Americans would do quite well. But for tens of millions of others, the Ryan plan is a path to more adversity.”
Mr. Greenstein cited cuts in Pell grants for college students, as well as in food stamps and Medicaid, as among the harshest proposals in the plan.
At times, though, Mr. Ryan has shown a willingness and ability to cooperate with Democrats, most notably in 2013 when he and Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, negotiated an agreement that lifted spending caps in 2014 and 2015 in exchange for spending cuts in the future. It is that sort of cooperation that has raised skepticism in the minds of some hard-line House Republicans.
As a young man, Mr. Ryan worked for Representative Jack Kemp, the New York Republican who was a noted champion of supply-side economics and the architect of many of the Reagan-era tax cuts. But Mr. Kemp, who went on to serve as Bob Dole’s pick for vice president in 1996, was never as aggressive in pushing for cuts in federal spending as his protégé.
Mr. Conrad called Mr. Ryan “a very smart guy” but said he was deeply disappointed when Mr. Ryan refused to vote in favor of the plan developed by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which fell three votes short of the threshold needed to put the proposal before Congress.
“That was a real opportunity to advance the national interests, and he just walked away,” Mr. Conrad said. “That was a very disappointing moment.”
“The reason he gave was there wasn’t enough cuts to Medicare,” Mr. Conrad continued. “And there were savings in Medicare, but it wasn’t the kind of draconian cuts that he later proposed in his own budgets. And those budgets didn’t go anywhere, and I would suggest they won’t go anywhere, because they just go too far.”
While Mr. Ryan opposed the plan, all three Republican senators on the panel, some of the Senate’s staunchest conservatives, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Michael D. Crapo of Idaho, voted in favor of it. “I thought Paul was in some ways too certain of his own belief system,” Mr. Conrad said.
Others echoed the view that Mr. Ryan is firm in his beliefs. “He truly believes that government should be cut deeply, we should free people from the bondages of welfare and other government programs that enslave them,” said a congressional staff member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of a desire to maintain good relations with lawmakers from both parties.
Mr. Gregg praised Mr. Ryan for presenting bold initiatives.
“He has shown himself to be one of the premier leaders if not the leader in our party in proposing policies that can get things done,” Mr. Gregg said in a telephone interview, citing Mr. Ryan’s initiatives on tax policy, budget and health care.
Mr. Gregg disputed the notion that Mr. Ryan’s proposed cuts were cruel. “It’s not hardhearted to make Social Security and Medicare solvent, and the way you make them solvent are the ways Ryan has suggested, which don’t affect low-income or even middle-income folks,” he said.
Mr. Gregg said he did not expect Mr. Ryan to accept the speaker’s post without a firm commitment of cooperation from the hard-liners who had bedeviled Mr. Boehner.
“No,” Mr. Gregg said. “Not unless he gets the people in our party who do not want to govern and who are there simply to shout and stand in the corners and raise money, not unless he gets them to commit that they will be with him on the votes he needs.”
“He is a very sophisticated guy, very smart, understands all the nuances of this job,” Mr. Gregg added. “He doesn’t take the job if he’s going to end up in the same boat.”