Paul Ryan, just 41 but already a seventh-term congressman, is the man making the House Republicans' sales pitch for truly big budget cuts. And he's doing it by talking about maturity.
Americans, he says, "are ready to be talked to like adults, not children."
If the government is to bring increasingly dangerous deficits under control, he insists, there have to be big changes in all-but-untouchable programs including aid for the elderly and the poor.
"Hopefully," he says, "that kind of adult conversation can occur."
Presidents and lawmakers have for years been talking about overhauling entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, with little to show.
What's new this year is that Ryan is making the pitch from the helm of a committee with a key voice in the long-term debate over how to bring the nation's racing deficit under control, at a time when the aging, financially strapped nation is paying attention.
The messenger is a youthful father of three with an enthusiasm for fitness who is as likely to have Led Zeppelin as Beethoven playing through the ear buds he often wears around Capitol Hill. He leads sessions of a workout routine called P90X for a few colleagues as many as five times a week. He's an avid bow hunter not averse to emailing from the brush as he waits for deer.
Ryan's also known for at least one salty Christmas gift exchange: He gave Rep. James Sensenbrenner, also of Wisconsin, nose clippers in a box from Tiffany's after Sensenbrenner gifted Ryan a reindeer that dispensed candy from the back end.
Ryan told The Washington Post that he's not a "root canal" Republican focused on making America suffer for a broader goal.
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But to a nation just getting to know him, Ryan is a wonky "budgeteer" armed with graphs and PowerPoint presentations to help illustrate his "Roadmap for America's Future" in 2008 and, on Tuesday, his "Path to Prosperity," both of which prescribe painful solutions for the nation's fiscal ills.
People are listening, some in high places.
Last year at the GOP retreat in Baltimore, Obama referenced Ryan's alternative budget proposal with a shout-out any author would envy.
"I've read it. I can tell you what's in it," Obama said. The plan, the president added, was "a serious proposal," and Ryan "a sincere guy."
This year, Ryan made his pitch as the GOP's responder to Obama's State of the Union address. And on Tuesday, he delivered the Budget Committee's "Path to Prosperity," a proposal for the 2012 budget that even some Republicans worry could do the party more harm than good in next year's midterm and presidential elections.
"We must cut spending and tighten our belt, but House Republicans have chosen to do so on the backs of America's seniors, not the big oil companies making record profits and getting tens of billions in taxpayer subsidies," the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee blasted in an email later in the day.
Ryan says he and the other Republicans, especially the history-making freshman class, can do other things with their lives should the proposals cut short their political careers. For now, he says, they're trying to solve what everyone agrees is a looming disaster for the nation's fiscal future.
"If that means we're giving our political adversaries a political weapon to use against us, which by the way they will have to distort, demagogue and lie to use it," Ryan said, "shame on them."
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