WASHINGTON (AP) — Paul Ryan is getting his groove back.
A month after the GOP's presidential ticket lost an election, the party's vice presidential nominee finds himself comfortably back in his political wheelhouse on Capitol Hill and in the thick of a debate over how to avert automatic tax increases and spending cuts that many economists fear could cripple the economy if Congress doesn't head them off by Jan. 1.
The Wisconsin congressman isn't technically a member of the House Republican leadership. But he's viewed by GOP colleagues as an expert on economic and tax policy and entitlement programs. He's a good gauge of how far the party's most conservative lawmakers will bend, if at all, as House Speaker John Boehner negotiates with the White House and Democratic-controlled Senate over the "fiscal cliff."
That explains why Ryan has become a new addition to what previously was a four-person, 30-minute morning meeting led each day by Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va.
The GOP leaders want his views in planning strategy for dodging a budget meltdown and coming out on top politically. As an informal liaison to rank-and-file members, he's in a position to test what policy changes these members may be willing to support and sell them on what they should accept or reject. Ryan's signature Monday on Boehner's initial offer to Obama — raising the eligibility age for Medicare, lowering cost-of-living hikes for Social Security benefits and bringing in $800 billion in higher tax revenue — could help satisfy some of the party's most conservative constituencies that otherwise might balk at any notion of tax increases.
"Congressman Ryan finds himself at a near-perfect meeting of preparation and opportunity," said Joe Brettell, a Republican strategist and former Capitol Hill aide. "His credibility with both Republican leadership and the conservative establishment will make his support a crucial element to any fiscal cliff agreement."
According to House GOP officials, whatever top Republicans need from Ryan — from policy advice to political cover — they're getting it.
Ryan plays down his role, saying people should focus on Boehner and President Barack Obama.
"Speaker Boehner has outlined a bipartisan way forward to avoid the fiscal cliff and get our economy growing: commonsense entitlement reform coupled with pro-growth tax reform," he said last week. "We can find common ground on responsible spending restraint and greater revenue, but we have yet to see real, specific spending cuts from President Obama."
Nevertheless, Ryan's deep involvement in the debate suggests his reputation within the GOP as a conservative leader against tax increases and advocate for reining in spending, particularly on programs like Social Security and Medicare, hasn't been hurt by his failed stint as Mitt Romney's running mate.