DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Republican Paul Ryan, who ran for vice president last year, has been one of President Obama's toughest critics when it comes to the economy. We reached him yesterday to talk about the president's new budget that's out this week. The White House says it's a compromise. Ryan does not see it that way.
REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: I have a hard time seeing the plan as a compromise, given that we have trillion-dollar deficits, we have debt that is too high that's getting out of control, and they propose to add more to it.
GREENE: But as we got into specifics with the House Budget chairman, it began to sound like the bitter battles over the budget could be toning down in Washington. We asked Ryan if he was impressed that the president, angering some in his own party, was talking about changes in entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.
RYAN: Given that the president did put what is widely considered a fairly controversial proposal on the table, with respect to entitlement programs, I see that as a new move, something that's fairly unprecedented for this White House, and something that I interpret as an olive branch. So I see that as a good thing. But if you're asking me whether this budget is a compromise, it's a budget that has net spending and tax increases and never balances the budget. So I don't really see that in the aggregate as a compromise. I see some component parts within this budget as a move toward compromise.
GREENE: We know that you and the president, I mean from the campaign and from what many people in your party have said, I mean there are different approaches. But when it comes to actually finding a way to get some sort of agreement now, I mean when it comes to taxes we went through a period when House Speaker John Boehner and the president, you know, talked about numbers and came to an agreement on a level of tax increases. It seems like you're talking about the entitlement program, what the president is saying is an olive branch. It feels like there is room to work here and that we might be closer to some sort of agreement that we haven't seen in this country in a while.
RYAN: No, I think that's right, I think that's right. So what I see this year that's different from last four years is the president put a budget with some olive branch proposals, I guess we should say. The Senate actually passed the budget - they haven't done that in four years. What that does is it keeps the budget process continuing. This is the first time in this presidency that I have seen a chance at a bipartisan budget agreement. So I am cautiously optimistic about that. Do I believe that there's going to be a grand bargain where we fix all of our fiscal problems, where we deliver Medicare and Social Security solvency in perpetuity? I don't necessarily see that. But do I see an opportunity to get a down payment on the deficit, a down payment on the debt, hopefully tax reform that's pro-growth? I think that there are Republicans and Democrats here on Capitol Hill that agree with these things. And I think the president is adding a few proposals that gets us toward that kind of a compromise, and that is where I am cautiously optimistic.
GREENE: If I man, Congressman, I mean you said the president is offering some olive branches. I'm hearing you say that you want a down payment. Does that mean that when it comes to your budget on the House side - you authored it, it passed the House - would you be willing to back off on some of the discretionary cuts in spending that you've offered?
RYAN: Yeah, of course, we understand that. I mean, look, we know that we're not going to get everything that we propose in our budget. To give you just sort of the macro-differences, we achieved $5 trillion in spending savings in our budget. The president raises net spending by about a trillion. So there's a pretty big gulf in between there. Do I believe he's going to come all the way and agree with us and agree with every one of our $5 trillion in savings? No, I don't. I think that's unrealistic. But do I believe that somewhere in between the two of us we can find a common ground to meet? That's my goal and I hope we get there.
GREENE: One of the president's aides called your budget the Romney economic plan, and you, of course, have a strong relationship with Mitt Romney. You ran with him.
RYAN: Mitt is a very good friend. I wish he were the president of the United States today.
GREENE: What do you think of that comment? Is it an accurate way to describe your budget?
RYAN: Well, you know, our plan on the Romney-Ryan ticket is very similar to this budget. One of the reasons I think Mitt Romney selected me to be his running mate is because I've been authoring budgets here in Congress and I'm the chairman of the Budget Committee. We are at a time where we have a budget crisis. We have a deficit and debt crisis. So am I proud to be labeled by the White House as a person who is standing up and taking on the fiscal challenges, as politically perilous as they may be, because I want to prevent America from being engulfed in a European-like debt crisis? Absolutely. That's what Mitt Romney and I were campaigning on, that's what we were talking about. That's the work I've been doing in the House for a number of years, and that is what is we're trying to accomplish here today.
GREENE: And that campaign was largely an argument over the role of government. And I guess I wonder, can the president not point to his election victory and say it was a fairly clear statement about where a majority of the county wants to go right now when it comes to budget and the fiscal health of this country?
RYAN: No less and no more than we in the House of Representatives can point to the same statement that the House of Representatives was resoundingly reelected in the majority as well. The point is, it was more or less of a status quo election where you have divided government. Divided government hasn't worked in the last two years. We want to make it work in these two years of this term, and this is why we have to figure out a way to make it work.
GREENE: Congressman, we have heard from both Republicans and Democrats on the Hill that this president did not do a great job always reaching out to members of Congress during the first term. He's been doing a lot more outreach lately. You've met with him. From where you sit, has his new approach been constructive?
RYAN: It is. I think that's correct. The question is, is it temporary? Was it for political cosmetics or atmospherics or was it real and sincere? And time will tell on that.
GREENE: The day the budget comes out, the president invites some of your Republican colleagues from the Senate over to chat about the budget and other topics. And I wonder, do you worry that if your ideas and the president's do remain far apart that the White House and Senate might go through a process of negotiating and you and House Republicans might not have a voice at some point?
RYAN: No, I don't worry about that, because the House is controlled by Republicans and you can't pass legislation through the House if the House doesn't pass legislation. And so we - we're a big part of this. It's divided government. We control a third of that equation. So I can't imagine that they would try to do something that doesn't include the House because they wouldn't be able to get anything done then.
GREENE: But if they came to, you know, a pretty solid agreement, doesn't that put a lot of pressure on you and your House colleagues?
GREENE: Why not?
RYAN: Because it doesn't.
GREENE: If there's a big deal made, I mean you don't feel like there would be pressure to sign on?
RYAN: No, no. We don't bow to pressure based on politics and press. We do what we think is right.
GREENE: You have come on our programs before, but this is the first time since we've spoken to you since the long campaign. I just wonder if that experience changed your thinking and approach to your job in any way.
RYAN: You know, that's a good question. I think it gave me a better view of the country. It gave me a better sense of just the passion people have for the ideals that built this country. And when you go through a national campaign and all that comes with it, you become far more familiar with yourself and you just become more attuned to, I guess I'd call it the white noise of politics. And it just doesn't get to you as much. So it sort of gives you a sense of experience, I hope to call it wisdom, on not fretting the small stuff and not worrying about the white noise that comes with politics.
GREENE: Congressman Paul Ryan is the chairman of the House Budget Committee. Congressman, thanks so much for your time.
RYAN: You bet. Nice to be with you. Take care.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.