Moments after President Obama concludes his State of the Union address from the imposing podium of the House of Representatives on Tuesday night, Rep. Paul D. Ryan will deliver the GOP's answering speech from the House Budget Committee's hearing room, across the street in one of the House office buildings.
The message, congressional aides said, is clear: Whatever Mr. Obama's words, Congress is where the real work on cutting spending will be done.
Going head-to-head with the president is the latest elevation in profile for Mr. Ryan, the new chairman of the House Budget Committee, whom one colleague dubbed "the pre-eminent voice of fiscal sanity in our nation today."
Tuesday's speech will mark the first time in Mr. Obama's tenure that he will speak to a Congress where one chamber is controlled by Republicans — and it underscores the different challenge he will face this year, after voters, worried about runaway spending, powered the GOP to huge gains in November.
Mr. Obama, in a video message to supporters over the weekend, said he'll talk about both deficits and the need to boost jobs — and the Wall Street Journal reported he will call for increased spending in some areas, such as education and infrastructure.
Mr. Ryan is likely to provide a stark contrast in his response.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling, who called Mr. Ryan the country's top voice on budget matters, said the congressman from Wisconsin has the smarts to talk about specifics on the budget and, with three young children, also can speak to the obligation to clean up the mess rather than pass it on to other generations.
"A guy who's got small children thinks a lot about this — and it's not just rhetoric. Paul Ryan's bringing solutions," said Mr. Hensarling, the Texas Republican who was Mr. Ryan's right-hand man on the Budget Committee and is now chairman of the House Republican Conference.
Democrats said Republicans are now tied to Mr. Ryan's "Roadmap for America's Future," a broad blueprint he has touted for several years to cut spending and put the government on sound long-term fiscal footing.
It calls for restructuring Social Security and Medicare for those 55 and younger, and would impose stiff spending caps, along with an overall goal of federal taxes amounting to 19 percent of gross domestic product.
Democrats have described the plan as an assault on Social Security.
"Picking Representative Paul Ryan to give the State of the Union rebuttal is a clear sign that House Republicans will move full speed ahead with plans that would have a devastating impact on seniors who are already struggling to get by," said Jesse Ferguson, a spokesman for the House Democrats' campaign committee.
But having the plan also gives Mr. Ryan unmatched credibility because it means he's personally worked the numbers and knows the outlines of the problem.
"Ryan not only has knowledge, Ryan has solutions," Mr. Hensarling said. "I don't know of any other member of Congress who put on the table a comprehensive plan that grandfathers the grandparents, that ensures our social safety net stays intact, and further ensures our children have a brighter future."
House Republicans have given Mr. Ryan immense power as Budget Committee chairman this year, including pushing legislation that would give him near-unilateral control over setting the House's overall dollar target for the months-overdue 2011 spending bills.
Mr. Ryan also was one of the members of Mr. Obama's deficit commission who refused to endorse its final report, preventing it from getting the 14 votes Mr. Obama said in advance were needed for him to formally submit the panel's recommendations.
In the coming months, the GOP likely will turn to Mr. Ryan to help them write the cost-cutting measures they'll try to attach to legislation that would raise the national debt limit.
But there's pressure on Mr. Ryan, too.
He will have to write a 2012 budget this spring, and will have to balance his own predilection for cuts with the wishes of colleagues and party leaders who were wary of his road map.
"Clearly, it gives more prominence to Ryan, and to that extent it will end up focusing additional attention on his road map," said Paul N. Van de Water of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who has studied Mr. Ryan's plan and said the key is what Mr. Ryan does next. "What is the House Budget Committee going to put out by way of a budget resolution? Is it going to look like the Ryan road map or not."
It will not be the first time Mr. Ryan and Mr. Obama have gone head-to-head over the budget.
During the past year, when he and Mr. Obama are in the same room, Republicans have repeatedly turned over the microphone to Mr. Ryan to debate with the president over the long-term budget outlook.
The White House itself has not been shy about pointing to Mr. Ryan. At one point, press secretary Robert Gibbs used Mr. Ryan as a point of defense, drawing parallels between Mr. Ryan's own comments on health care rationing to those of Dr. Donald Berwick, the controversial pick Mr. Obama made to oversee implementation of his health care reform law.
In 2009 and 2010 Republicans tapped governors to deliver their response: first, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, and then Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell.
© Copyright 2021 The Washington Times, LLC