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Paul Ryan and Chris Van Hollen: the fiscal bellwethers

The two House members – longtime ideological foes – will play a central role in bringing their respective party members along if Congress is ever to cut a grand fiscal deal. 

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Politically, the two men will play similar roles. On the right, Ryan has been a liaison between the GOP leadership and the party's fractious, more junior base of conservatives on setting a strategy on spending issues. It would almost certainly fall to him to fight for any sweeping fiscal deal among the chamber's most conservative members.

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"He's pretty critical in bringing these young guys along because he's respected, and he's been at it so long," says former Rep. Steven LaTourette of Ohio, a centrist who was himself considered a dealmaker in the House.

Van Hollen, too, has carved out a niche as the go-to source for House Democrats on budget issues. "People absolutely turn to him, increasingly, for advice on budget and related fiscal matters," says Rep. Gerry Connelly (D) of Virginia.

But will these two budget warriors reach an accord? Ryan has shown a willingness to make tough calls in the past. He voted for the bailout of financial institutions, has been a longtime sponsor of comprehensive immigration reform, and broke with two of his closest colleagues in the GOP leadership to vote for the year-end "fiscal cliff" tax deal. He recently lunched with President Obama and Van Hollen to discuss financial issues and said his budget was an "invitation" to a broader discussion with Democrats.

"Ryan, within the Republican Party, [has] taken on this image of being the kingmaker both intellectually but also politically," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Prince-ton University. "In the end, for a real deal or a real drama, you need a 'Nixon goes to China' moment, and he's the one who could do it."

While Ryan may have to endure a proposal with more tax increases, Van Hollen's challenge will be acquiescing to reforms to sacred Democratic programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Perhaps boding well for such talks is that Ryan and Van Hollen have already gone through multiple rounds of fiscal negotiations: Both understand all the pressure points. "In some ways, the answer is hiding in plain sight," Van Hollen says. "On the other hand, it's been very difficult to get there."

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