If Ryan can wring concessions from Democrats on entitlements, it could help his presidential ambitions. “If he’s running in two or four years from now he’ll be able to say [the deficit was reduced] because of my insistence on entitlement reform,” said Hoagland, who is now a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Republicans feel confident in pressing for long-term entitlement reform as part of “grand bargain” negotiations because polling on Medicare during the campaign suggested the issue was not a major liability for Ryan and Republican White House nominee Mitt Romney, despite a barrage of Democratic attacks zeroing in on the Wisconsin congressman’s Medicare plan.

Eric Ueland, Frist’s former chief of staff, said Republicans recognize that Ryan might have to cede some ground in the budget talks because Democrats hold a significant amount of leverage, given that they still control the Senate and that President Obama won his re-election bid. “What he does and what he’s able to do is judged against the baseline,” said Ueland, now a vice president at the Duberstein Group.