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Ryan leaves drama to others; coolly steps in at key moment

By Leigh Ann Caldwell, CNN
updated 4:09 PM EDT, Thu October 10, 2013
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, is trailed by reporters after leaves a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on Thursday.
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, is trailed by reporters after leaves a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on Thursday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • After keeping a low-profile, Paul Ryan emerges with key role in Washington's standoff
  • His op-ed on a path forward first generated a conservative backlash
  • But his timely emergence has proven effective
  • Leadership effectively transitioned Republican negotiation demands away from health care

Washington (CNN) -- For more than a week into a government shutdown, Paul Ryan kept a low profile amid the political uproar.

When he finally emerged, the time was ripe for someone with his conservative cred and fiscal bona fides to step in and try to corral his bucking Republican Party.

While a group of conservatives were driving the agenda in the quagmire over spending, Obamacare and the looming debt limit, Ryan dropped an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal outlining the Republican path forward.

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Yes, he did stir up divisions between tea party conservatives and establishment GOP lawmakers, but he also enabled party leaders to grab the reins and regain control of their caucus.

Prologue: Ryan's strategy

To remain silent.

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As Texas Sen. Ted Cruz staged a public fight over defunding President Barack Obama's signature health care law, which led to the shutdown, Ryan tread lightly.

For instance, CNN has asked every member of Congress if he or she would support a government funding or debt ceiling bill with no strings attached -- something Obama and Democrats are demanding. Ryan's office chose not to comment.

His recent reticence was more noticeable because the issues front and center now fell into his wheelhouse.

Cue Paul Ryan.

Act I: The adult in the room

Ryan Williams, former spokesman for 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said that Ryan speaks about issues when necessary.

"He intends to be the adult in the room when needed," Williams said. "He felt that it was important for him to speak up to address the seemingly never-ending stalemate that we're witnessing in Washington."

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A source told CNN this was the plan all along. Ryan thought the better issue to demand concessions from the president was around the debt ceiling and that he'd play a larger role in that debate.

Ryan's low profile, however, was evident on Thursday when Republicans emerged from a conference to announce what they planned to take to the White House.

As nearly a dozen House leaders approached the microphone to announce a deal, Ryan refrained from speaking. He stood in the background, barely in the frame of the television cameras.

Act II: Ryan's backlash

Ryan, who was previously considered the conservative knight in shining armor for his fiscal policies, took a beating from the home team when he released his op-ed urging the terms of negotiations revolve around the deficit and entitlement programs.

Lisa Miller, Founder of the Washington-based Tea Party WDC, told CNN that she is skeptical of Ryan's plan.

"Paul Ryan is a numbers guy; I just don't like his numbers," Miller said.

And a spokeswoman for Cruz noticed something else that irritated conservatives.

"There is one big work missing from this op-ed. It's start with an O and ends with BAMACARE," she tweeted.

Ryan was forced to go on defense instead of push his agenda.

Ryan responds to criticism over op-ed

Appearing on conservative talk show "Bill Bennett's Morning in America," Bennett asked Ryan if dismantling Obamacare was no longer a priority. Ryan insisted that it still was.

"Obamacare's an entitlement just like any other entitlement," Ryan said, according to Politico. "If you look at the op-ed, I say we have to - ultimately we have to rethink all of our nation's health care laws."

Act III: Ryan's defense

But Ryan has some support on this matter.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus echoed Ryan's defense, and said the op-ed included "OBAMACARE," even though it didn't specifically mention it.

And Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona called Ryan's proposal a "must read."

Act IV: Ryan's impact

One day later, however, Ryan's timely action has proved significant.

Republican leadership has now effectively transitioned GOP negotiation demands away from health care. Republican leadership said the proposal they are bringing to Obama is a discussion on "an array of issues." Missing from the proposal were the words "health care" or "Obamacare."

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The subtle omission is significant because the parameters of the debate have dramatically changed.

Dismantling the health care law is a top priority among a core group of conservative lawmakers. The demand to defund Obamacare resulted in the government shutdown, despite reluctance from Republican leadership to back their plan, knowing that the president and Democratic Senate would never agree to that.

Epilogue: Ryan's future

Ultimately, his timely emergence could be part of a larger plot. As a young politician with a bright future, speculation is rampant that he might be running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

That speculation grows louder especially as he plans trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, the first presidential nominating states.

He will keynote a birthday fundraiser for Iowa's Republican governor next month and he is to attend a fundraising breakfast for a congressional candidate in New Hampshire.

Ryan stood back while Cruz, another potential 2016 hopeful, pushed the Republican Party into a difficult position.

With some experience on his side having served in Congress for 15 years and running on a presidential ticket, Ryan understands the risk of speaking too often and too soon. It creates more opportunity to mess up.

CNN's Dan Merica contributed to this report.

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