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Will Ryan Lead GOP Resistance to Deal?

As negotiations over a deal on the federal deficit continue, President Obama pressed his advantage with his House Republican antagonists yesterday with his latest speech harping on the need to raise taxes. Though he calls his plan a “balanced approach,” as the New York Times notes today, “the high-profile public campaign he has been waging in recent days has focused almost entirely on the tax side of the equation, with scant talk about his priorities when it comes to curbing spending.” That doesn’t mean that some spending cuts won’t eventually be included in any deal. But with more signs of GOP panic about being blamed for the standoff, the expectation is that the president will get a lot more than he will give in the negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner.

As Politico reports today, the outline of a deal is already in place and few in Washington believe the Republicans will stand their ground when it comes to opposing the raising of rates on wealthier Americans, even if those hikes won’t do much to solve the deficit. Even worse is the possibility that rather than just closing loopholes and eliminating deductions instead of raising rates, what will happen is that the GOP will wind up doing both while failing to extract an agreement on reforming the tax code or an end to out-of-control spending on entitlements.

But if the assumption that Boehner and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor will decide that discretion is the better part of valor and fold in order to avoid the fiscal cliff is correct, that leaves us with the not unimportant question of who it will be that will lead the resistance to such a deal. The answer to that question will tell us a lot about the future of the Republican Party as well as the 2016 presidential race.

As Politico notes, the wild card in the GOP leadership is Rep. Paul Ryan, who is now back on the Hill in his role as House Budget Committee chair after his stint as Mitt Romney’s vice presidential nominee. Reportedly, Ryan is the sole member of the top House GOP leadership who is still opposed to conceding the argument about raising taxes that his colleagues consider to be inevitable.

If Ryan came out openly against the agreement, it would take the already fractious debate about the direction of the Republican Party to a new level of contentiousness. A full-scale revolt would pit the Tea Party core of the GOP against its more pragmatic leaders with consequences that can’t be entirely predicted. That would be catnip for a liberal media that loves to depict the GOP as extremists. It could also set the stage for a difficult vote in which liberal Democrats might choose to join with conservatives in opposing an Obama-Boehner deal in the hope that sending the country over the cliff would be blamed solely on the Republicans. However, a Ryan-led opposition to a deal would be no pushover, and even the possibility of such a party split might cause Boehner to pull back from a deal that could sunder his caucus and achieve the same results.

A Ryan revolt or even a situation in which he was seen as the one member who kept the GOP true to its principles might also be the first blow in what is sure to be a protracted four-year lead-up to the 2016 presidential contest. By taking a stand now, Ryan would further establish himself as the hero of conservatives and the Tea Party even as he alienated the party’s House leadership. But it is the former rather than the latter that helps picks party nominees.

However, should Ryan decide to go along with Boehner, that won’t mean there won’t be any opposition to a pact with Obama. There will, and it will be angry and loud. But if it falls to someone like Michele Bachmann or a similar Tea Party rabble-rouser, the effect won’t be the same as if Ryan were the standard-bearer. In that case, Boehner would probably prevail. Seen in that light, Ryan’s decision may well decide the fate of any fiscal deal.