It’s been a while since we’ve seen Paul Ryan flex his leadership muscles, perhaps as long as last year after his unsuccessful bid for the Vice Presidency on Mitt Romney’s ticket. That seems especially odd in the context of the months-long budget fights on Capitol Hill, as Ryan chairs the House Budget Committee but seems to have been all but eclipsed by other Tea Party figures such as Ted Cruz and Rand Paul.  Ryan re-emerges in a Wall Street Journal column today with a plan to end the stalemate:

If Mr. Obama decides to talk, he’ll find that we actually agree on some things. For example, most of us agree that gradual, structural reforms are better than sudden, arbitrary cuts. For my Democratic colleagues, the discretionary spending levels in the Budget Control Act are a major concern. And the truth is, there’s a better way to cut spending. We could provide relief from the discretionary spending levels in the Budget Control Act in exchange for structural reforms to entitlement programs.

These reforms are vital. Over the next 10 years, the Congressional Budget Office predicts discretionary spending—that is, everything except entitlement programs and debt payments—will grow by $202 billion, or roughly 17%. Meanwhile, mandatory spending—which mostly consists of funding for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security—will grow by $1.6 trillion, or roughly 79%. The 2011 Budget Control Act largely ignored entitlement spending. But that is the nation’s biggest challenge. …

Here are just a few ideas to get the conversation started. We could ask the better off to pay higher premiums for Medicare. We could reform Medigap plans to encourage efficiency and reduce costs. And we could ask federal employees to contribute more to their own retirement.

The president has embraced these ideas in budget proposals he has submitted to Congress. And in earlier talks with congressional Republicans, he has discussed combining Medicare’s Part A and Part B, so the program will be less confusing for seniors. These ideas have the support of nonpartisan groups like the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, and they would strengthen these critical programs. And all of them would help pay down the debt.

We should also enact pro-growth reforms that put people back to work—like opening up America’s vast energy reserves to development. There is even some agreement on taxes across the aisle.

The payoff is worth the climbdown, Ryan argues:

Reforms to entitlement programs and the tax code will spur economic growth—another goal that both parties share. The CBO says stable or declining levels of federal debt would help the economy. In addition, “federal interest payments would be smaller, policy makers would have greater leeway . . . to respond to any economic downturns . . . and the risk of a sudden fiscal crisis would be much smaller.”

A few people noticed that Ryan avoided mentioning ObamaCare or the Affordable Care Act.  Ryan’s office explained that ObamaCare would be included in entitlement reform.  The broader categorization allows for a little face-saving on the part of Democrats, presumably, but Ryan’s broader entitlement reforms have always addressed the ACA as part of what needs to be changed in entitlements anyway.

NBC’s political crew wonders whether this isn’t the escape path for all sides:

Yesterday, Republicans began floating proposals that had nothing to do with health care. Moreover, in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan argued for “both sides” to “agree to common-sense reforms of the country’s entitlement programs and tax code.” What he called for were some of the very things that Obama and Democrats have already put on the table. Medicare means-testing? Check. Further long-term entitlement cuts (like Chained CPI?)? Check. Bipartisan tax reform? Check. Most important, however, was what Ryan DIDN’T MENTION in the op-ed: any changes to the president’s health-care law. So Ryan’s op-ed is a pretty big deal; it’s an olive branch (from its tone) and it lays a potential way out.

The big question, of course, is if conservatives will feel betrayed by this potential way out — that is, some legislative process fix that forces the White House into debt talks that will include zero real changes to health care. Already, Heritage Action’s spokesman tweeted, “Much like White House press, Paul Ryan doesn’t mention Obamacare in WSJ oped.” The Senate Conservative Fund quipped, [email protected] Obamacare is the #1 job killer and it will bankrupt our country. Your plan does nothing to stop it.” And conservative commentator Erick Erickson went off on Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) for reportedly criticizing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) at a closed GOP meeting. Over the past few months, we’ve had this question for Republicans and conservatives: What is victory for them? Is it some compromise entitlement changes and tax reform? If so, that outcome looks attainable. Or is it a significant rollback to the president’s health-care law? For the conservative leaders in Washington, it’s clear they would prefer a focus on debt and entitlements. For some of these conservative grassroots leaders, it’s Obamacare or bust. This is, of course, what Boehner’s been worried about all along.

Clearly, the Democrats are being hurt by their refusal to negotiate, but they’re not losing on the repeal-ObamaCare front, either. The rollout has already happened and won’t be undone by this Senate or President.  Based on its disastrous rollout, Republicans should be looking for ways to get out of the way of the trainwreck so that Americans get the best possible view of it.

The question will be what Republicans can get from this standoff that actually helps on debt and spending.  Ryan’s at least looking for badly-needed reforms as potential wins.  With the original impasse strategy at an end, we need to acknowledge the facts on the ground, adapt to them, and look for ways to win concrete improvements in the status quo.