Paul Ryan’s Rough Return

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Marco Grob for TIME

Paul Ryan’s in a bind. Even as he’s being touted as the great white hope for the GOP in 2016, he’s voluntarily strapped himself to the party’s fast-sinking position on the fiscal cliff as a member of House Speaker John Boehner’s negotiating team. Now he has to decide which way to go: embrace a tax-hike deal, if one takes shape, and risk enraging the right; or buck compromise and potentially split the party.

Which way will Ryan go? “I believe, in this budget fight, that you can get to common ground without compromising principles,” he told TIME Tuesday evening in the House budget committee offices. But moments later Ryan declares that common ground is only possible “so long as the [tax] rates are not going up.”

We have a close look at Ryan’s ambitious attempt to reconcile his new national status with his wonky budget chairman persona in this week’s magazine (available to subscribers here). Among the interesting details we get at in part through Ryan’s first national print interview since the vote:

-His quick decision to return to the House, ignoring the advice of campaign aides, in part thanks to Boehner’s entreaties the morning after the vote.

-How the fiscal cliff is partly a problem of his own making—he and his budget committee staffers are the ones who rewrote the 1985 Budget Act in a mad 48-hour rush in the summer of 2011, effectively turning long-dormant sequestration back on.

-How many dozens of votes advisers think Ryan takes with him either way as he weighs compromise on the fiscal cliff.

-Ryan’s efforts to distance himself from the failed Romney campaign, and to reestablish himself as a defender of the poor—even as he sells broad cuts to the programs the Catholic bishops say are crucial to fighting poverty.

It is interesting to watch Ryan try to readjust. While advisers say some GOP House leaders have an air of inevitable concession about them in the fiscal cliff talks, Ryan seems to be still swept along by campaign-style certainty that the President can be outmaneuvered. Ryan has yet to figure out an end-game: a dangerous position for someone who has his sights set on another White House run.