Updated Monday, November 19, 2012 at 06:09 AM
WASHINGTON — Gone is the private jet and the motorcade that swept him from the tarmac to the private hotel entrances. His security staff has been reduced to a few Capitol Police officers, soon to fade away. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is again driving his own truck back home, and walking to the House floor here for votes alone, like everyone else.
But after his unsuccessful run for vice president, Ryan, who has returned to his post as the House Budget Committee chairman, has been tapped by Speaker John Boehner to help strike a deal to avoid big tax increases and spending cuts by the end of the year, and to bring along fellow Republicans.
The test will be whether Ryan — who declined last year to sit on another congressional committee charged with taming the deficit, in large part because doing so might have hurt his prospects for national office — can make the shift from House budget philosopher to governing heavyweight who can help negotiate a bipartisan deal and sell it to his colleagues.
While President Obama and the Democrats are expected to give ground on entitlements and discretionary spending, it is likely that Ryan will be the player under the most pressure to back down from his previous conservative positions in order to form a bipartisan agreement.
Ryan was largely silent during the campaign about his call for changes to the Medicare system and for vast cuts to government services, as outlined in his House budget. But at the Republican convention, he called the Obama administration's economic vision "a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us."
With his new muscle and increased respect from his colleagues, Ryan could conceivably scuttle any deal and his conservative base might rebel against him if he were to endorse any deal seen as awarding too much to Obama and the Democrats, particularly on tax rates.
Some Republicans think the pitfalls are dangerous enough that Ryan might consider leaving Congress altogether to work on his policy agenda without the inherent headaches of the Hill.
"He has to think about what he wants his role to be," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla. "Is he going to run in 2016, or run for something else in Wisconsin, or play a bigger role in the House? He's going to play an outsize role here because of the national profile he now has, but on the other hand, this conference is quite happy to act independently."
Not all Republicans are quite so charmed by Ryan. He has engendered some exasperation among appropriators and other members who have been forced to apply his stringent budget numbers to their spending bills.
Further, in the first test of his postelection influence, Ryan aggressively supported two conservative candidates for House leadership roles who failed in their bids, including one who opposed Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, of Spokane.
Ryan has returned to the Hill voicing support for Boehner, a departure from last year, when he was wary of bipartisan deficit solutions, including the one Boehner tried to negotiate with the president.
"Speaker Boehner has outlined a bipartisan way forward to avoid the 'fiscal cliff' and get our economy growing with common-sense entitlement reform coupled with pro-growth tax reform," said Conor Sweeney, Ryan's spokesman.
Democrats, who recognize Ryan's power to pull his fellow Republicans into a deal, are also skeptical of his role.
"I find it very fascinating," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who will be the Senate Budget Committee chairwoman, "because his vision was actually on the ballot, and Americans decided to go in a different direction."
While Murray noted that Boehner is the official leader of the House Republicans and that she found the speaker's recent conciliatory tone "encouraging," she said Ryan's impact was a wild card. "If he is bringing Ryan in to have his budget of the past as the present stance, it is going to be long row to hoe," she said. "If they are bringing Ryan in to listen and compromise, that will represent a path forward."
Ryan, who was as shocked by his ticket's loss as Mitt Romney was, spent the morning after the election in a Boston hotel eating breakfast with his family and ruminating about what they had been through, said his brother, Tobin Ryan.
Aides say Paul Ryan was invigorated by the race. He particularly enjoyed his time spent in Iowa, where his wife, Janna, visited her grandmother's home for the first time in many years.
Boehner called Ryan to go over his postelection statement on Capitol Hill, signaling a softened approach to a budget deal. Ryan, joined by his two brothers, then went pheasant hunting.
When Ryan returned to Capitol Hill last week, he was met with a standing ovation from his Republican colleagues, a bear hug from Boehner and the hope from conservatives that he would hold the line on taxes and other spending.
"I hope he's front and center in this debate," said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, departing chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee. "He's probably our best spokesperson for how serious this debt situation is."
According to aides and others close to Ryan, he is as focused on doing the job before him as he was on winning the vice-presidential race.
"We just sort of picked ourselves back up, and we are all back into our lives and jobs," Tobin Ryan said. "And frankly, I see Paul doing the same thing."
Rep. Paul Ryan returns to budget committee.