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Ryan’s Rise From Follower to G.O.P. Trailblazer

WASHINGTON — Representative Paul D. Ryan strolls the halls of Capitol Hill with the anarchist band Rage Against the Machine pounding through his earbuds.

House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., holds a copy of his budget proposal 'The Path to Prosperity' during a news conference on the FY2012 budget resolution on Tuesday, April 5, 2011.
Bill Clark | Getty Images
House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., holds a copy of his budget proposal 'The Path to Prosperity' during a news conference on the FY2012 budget resolution on Tuesday, April 5, 2011.

At 6:30 every morning, he leads an adoring cast of young, conservative members of Congress through exercise sessions in front of a televised trainer barking out orders. For fun, Mr. Ryan noodles catfish, catching them barehanded with a fist down their throats.

He may be, as a friend described him, “a hunting-obsessed gym rat,” but Mr. Ryan, 42, of Wisconsin, has become perhaps the most influential policy maker in the Republican Party, its de facto head of economic policy, intent on a fundamental transformation of the federal government.

His prescriptions in the Republican budget plan he devised have become his party’s marching orders: cut income tax rates and simplify the code, privatize Medicare, shrink the food-stamp and Medicaid programs and turn almost all control over to the states, and reduce domestic federal spending to its smallest share of the economy since World War II.

Outside ofMitt Romney, the likely Republican presidential nominee, Mr. Ryan may be the party’s most important figure, said William Bennett, the conservative luminary and a mentor of Mr. Ryan’s going back to the congressman’s early 20s.

Some conservatives say Mr. Bennett might have the reality reversed. “Paul Ryan effectively captured the Republican presidential candidates,” Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a member of the House Republican leadership, said admiringly.

Having gained such influence, Mr. Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, now faces some big questions, about his ideas and his future.

So far, he has offered major parts of his budget only in broad brush strokes, without specifying all the spending cuts he would make or which popular tax breaks he would eliminate. He has proposed collapsing today’s six personal income tax rates into two, 10 percent and 25 percent, and lowering the corporate rate to 25 percent from 35 percent, all while maintaining the same flow of revenue by closing loopholes.

He also strongly favors a repeal of President Obama’s health care law, even though his own prescriptions for Medicare — a menu of federally subsidized, private health plans — are similar to the Obama plan’s for insurance expansion. But he has not offered a plan that would provide coverage to nearly as many people.

The White House and Congressional Democrats have seized on Mr. Ryan’s outline as the distillation of everything they say is wrong with the Republican agenda heading toward the November election.

Mr. Ryan has not yet made clear whether he has an interest in compromising or whether his sole goal is a Republican victory that is sweeping enough to enact his own vision.

Regardless, he is likely to remain near the center of the political tussle. He is among the handful of people most often mentioned as both a 2012 vice-presidential nominee and a future presidential candidate.

Grover Norquist, the Republican strategist who heads Americans for Tax Reform, said in an interview that he did not expect Mr. Romney to lead as president. He just wants him to sign the bills that put Mr. Ryan’s vision into practice.

That is not bad for a man who was once just another minion on Capitol Hill, working for a research group, then for a member of Congress, and moonlighting as a waiter at the Hill hangout Tortilla Coast and as a personal trainer at a gym. Co-workers at the conservative policy group Empower America admonished him for hanging his workout clothes out to dry at work rather than laundering them.

“It’s amazing to all of us because Paul was just an ordinary guy,” said A. Mark Neuman, an old friend.

Mr. Ryan admits it took some ego to run for Congress at age 27, a race he would win in 1998; he asked Mr. Bennett if it passed the laugh test. But he said he was still the same kid from Janesville, Wis., where he returns almost every weekend and Congressional recess to be with his wife, his three children, and a tight cluster of uncles, aunts, cousins and brothers.

He is not so modest about his budget plan, the Path to Prosperity.

“It’s very important, and we meant it to be,” Mr. Ryan said.

He does not drive stakes into the ground, he said, but he also made clear that compromise should come on his terms.

“What I hope happens is we go to the country with a positive agenda to show how we will prevent a debt crisis, how we will get this economy growing again,” he said, “then win the House, Senate and the White House, and then be magnanimous in that victory and include reformers from the other side of the aisle into a coalition to fix these problems.”

Rep. Ryan Paul from Wisconsin
Source:gpoaccess.gov
Rep. Ryan Paul from Wisconsin

Mr. Ryan pointed to his work with Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, and Alice M. Rivlin, a Clinton administration economist, on a Medicare overhaul that would include subsidized private competition, but on the broader question of whether spending cuts need to be twinned with tax increases, he does not give an inch.

His biggest opportunity for compromise came in late 2010 when, as a member of the president’s bipartisandeficit-reduction commission, he had a chance to vote on the $4 trillion plan put forward by the commission’s chairmen, Erskine B. Bowles and Alan K. Simpson. He voted no, taking every House Republican on the panel with him and preventing the guarantee of a vote in Congress.

But those who know him cannot seem to dislike him.

“I’m stunned by how oblivious he is to the pain his policies would cause people,” said David R. Obey, a Democrat from Wisconsin who jousted often with his downstate colleague before retiring from the House at the end of 2010. “What amazes me is that someone that nice personally has such a cold, almost academic view of what the impact of his policies would be on people.”

For all the talk of Led Zeppelin on the iPod and bowhunting in season, Mr. Ryan got serious at a young age, his brother Tobin, 47, said. His family was not particularly political. His parents liked Ronald Reagan, but they also supported their Democratic congressman, Les Aspin.

Mr. Ryan’s father, a local lawyer, worried that his son would become a ski bum. Then the elder Ryan died of a heart attack. At 16, with his mother away visiting his older sister, Paul found the body.

“The death of my father had an enormous impact on accelerating his development,” Tobin Ryan said.

Mr. Ryan’s mother went back to college to prepare for a new career. His older siblings moved away. His grandmother moved in, with Alzheimer’s disease.

He read Ayn Rand novels. By the time he got to Miami University in Ohio, he was versed in the bootstrap economics of Friedrich Hayek.

Among Republicans in and outside Mr. Ryan’s immediate circle, the admiration verges on infatuation. They gush about his athleticism: At 42, he is “in kick-butt shape,” said Representative Aaron Schock of Illinois. They laud his bowhunting: “It’s a little harder, takes more expertise and a lot more concentration,” said Representative Kevin McCarthy of California.

Aside from the occasional night at his sister-in-law’s house in Bethesda, Md., Mr. Ryan sleeps in his office when in Washington. It makes it easier to keep working.

Mr. Ryan married into Oklahoma Democratic royalty — his wife, Janna Little, is a cousin of Representative Dan Boren, the son of a former senator, David Boren. Mr. Ryan admired Ms. Little from afar and asked Mr. Neuman to introduce them. Her sister Dana was throwing her a birthday party, but Mr. Ryan, sick with the flu, almost begged off.

“I’m introducing you to the woman who is going to have your children,” Mr. Neuman recalled scolding him.

With marriage came a rural ranch where Mr. Ryan and his in-laws wade into Lake Texoma, reach into holes and wrestle catfish — a sport that appears to be attaining mythic dimensions in Ryan World.

“They come up on your hand, and you just squeeze wherever you are in that fish and pull it out,” he said with a shrug, bragging about the 40-pounder he landed two seasons ago. “I know it sounds a little crazy, but it’s really exhilarating.”

Mr. Ryan likes to dispel two “urban legends” around him. First, he said, he is not a disciple of Rand, the strident libertarian. Second, he never drove the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

In fact, there is some truth to both. In a 2009 Facebook video, Mr. Ryan said the “kind of thinking” in the Rand epics “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” was “sorely needed right now.”

As for the Wienermobile, one summer as he was pressing Oscar Mayer Lunchables and turkey bacon on meat buyers in rural Minnesota, two “very nice young ladies” who were driving the hotdog-shaped vehicle did let him “take it for a spin,” he confessed.

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