Updated: December 14, 2013 at 9:14 pm
WASHINGTON — Rep. Paul Ryan likened his 2-year budget agreement with Democrats to taking a few steps in the right direction.
But the bipartisan deal also carries potential value for Republicans and Ryan himself at a time when the party lacks a clear leader ahead of the 2014 election. If the agreement eventually comes to represent the badly needed bridge between Republican factions, Ryan was its builder.
In winning House passage of the bill last week, Mitt Romney's 2012 running mate pushed fellow conservatives to recognize the realities of divided government and take a more measured approach after a party-crippling government shutdown in October.
The compromise Ryan, R-Wis., negotiated with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., represents a new, pronounced effort by Republicans to avoid more self-inflicted wounds and begin assembling a governing agenda as an alternative to Democrats.
"To really do what we think needs to be done, we are going to have to win some elections and in the meantime let's try and make this divided government work," Ryan said. "I think our constituents are expecting a little more from us. They're expecting us to not keep shutting the government down, they're expecting us to pay the bills."
Ryan's stature among Republicans as a policy leader was established by writing blueprints on overhauling entitlement programs and curbing federal spending, well before he joined Romney's presidential ticket.
The 43-year-old aficionado of economist Ayn Rand could jump into the 2016 White House race after next year's elections or eventually try to succeed House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
But there also could be negative political consequences for Ryan in the budget mini-bargain.
The deal puts him on the wrong side of several outside conservative groups, including Heritage Action and the Club for Growth, which rallied opposition to the bill and keep tabs on how lawmakers hew to their views.
Two potential presidential rivals, GOP Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, were quick to oppose the bill, saying its immediate effect is to increase government spending.
"There is a recurring theme in Washington budget negotiations. It's 'I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today,'" Paul said, quoting the character Wimpy in the Popeye comic strip. "I think it's a huge mistake to trade sequester cuts now, for the promise of cuts later."
The measure, which sailed through the House on Thursday, aims to avoid future shutdowns.
It replaces $65 billion in across-the-board spending cuts, known as sequestration, that were set for this year and next, with about $85 billion in savings during the next decade.
Some longer-term savings will come in the form of higher government fees that many conservatives equate with tax increases, such as increased security charges on airline tickets and pension insurance premiums on employers.
The Senate is expected to vote on the bill this coming week.
Some conservatives complained the approach boosts deficits for two years before it starts cutting them, with no guarantee that future Congresses and administrations would stick to the plan.
Referring to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who's considered a possible contender for the Democratic nomination in 2016, Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., said, "It could be Hillary's second term before we actually achieve what was noted as a real deficit reduction."
He opposed the bill and noted that the biggest deficit cuts won't take place until 2021 and 2022.
"I don't think the deal flies outside of Washington," said Dan Holler of Heritage Action.
Despite the opposition, the plan still won support from more than half of the House Republican caucus. Some of the 62 House Republicans who opposed the bill still gave Ryan credit for forging it.
"Mr. Ryan is chairman of the Budget Committee and has done the best job you can do given the overwhelming liberal nature of the Senate," said Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., who opposed the plan. "We have to realize the environment in which Mr. Ryan functions."
Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., a conservative who voted for the bill, called Ryan "a conservative's conservative (who) is deeply thoughtful on all of these issues. That goes a long way with us rank-and-file members."
The vote was a fitting finale for Ryan.
At the start of the year, he urged Republicans at a conservative conference to "make decisions anchored in reality." During the summer, he cautioned against trying to delay or replace President Barack Obama's health care overhaul by threatening a government shutdown.
Taking the Republican lead in budget talks, Ryan played down any talks of a sweeping "grand bargain" with Democrats and suggested a collaborative approach that would allow both parties to move forward and avoid a shutdown.
While the measure must clear the Senate, it has the endorsement of the White House. Should the president sign it, Ryan can take credit for fashioning a bipartisan deal in a year marked by congressional gridlock.
"I think he's showing leadership," said South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham. "I mean if you want to become president, maybe instead of trying to please every faction of your party maybe you should show the country as a whole, 'I can actually work with the other side on something important.' It's a unique way to become president, but I think it might actually work."