By Craig Gilbert
Paul Ryan is working the home crowd in his first post-election listening tour when a rueful supporter brings up the Republican ticket's stinging defeat last fall.
As the push for immigration reform has gained steam from the GOP's 2012 defeat, Ryan has plunged into the fray, using his stature with conservatives to promote a sweeping bipartisan compromise in Congress.
In eight "town hall" meetings over four days last week, he took the issue directly to his southern Wisconsin district, carving out large chunks of time to argue for a package of reforms that divides his own party.
The most controversial among them: an eventual path to citizenship for many of the millions of immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.
"They go to the back of the line. They acknowledge that they broke the law. They pay the fine. They learn English," is how Ryan described the policy at one listening session, calling it a "non-amnesty way . . . of getting people out of the shadows."
Ryan's foray into the immigration debate is striking for several reasons.
One, it's outside the big basket of budget issues (spending, taxes, deficits, health care) he typically spends his time talking about.
Two, it's an issue that bedeviled his running mate Mitt Romney, who took a hard line against legalizing undocumented immigrants and performed abysmally with Latino voters.
And three, it represents at least a partial change in Ryan's approach.
The Janesville Republican has backed proposals for a path to citizenship dating back to 2005, and says his views on immigration reform have been consistent over time.
But some supporters of immigration reform see a shift (which they applaud).
Whether the House passes one big bill or a package of smaller bills, he's advocating comprehensive reform, not step-by-step changes.
"I wouldn't say that's a big change, but I think I more appreciate the severity of the situation and what it's going to take to fix it," Ryan said in the interview.
"I'm helping bring Republicans and Democrats together in the House to come up with the right bill," Ryan told the crowd in Kenosha last Wednesday.
If reform passes, it could enhance Ryan's credentials as a problem-solver. It could also alienate some conservatives, though there was little pushback from those who attended last week's listening sessions.
Republicans in the audience seemed more concerned about other issues, especially the soon-to-be implemented new health care law, which they joined Ryan in decrying.
Meanwhile, supporters of "comprehensive reform" offered him encouragement, including Kenosha Rabbi Dena Feingold, sister of former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold (Ryan's father and the Feingolds' father were lawyers in the same office building in Janesville).
Ryan's town halls drew both supporters and opponents. But they did not have the angry, warring feel that political meetings in Wisconsin had throughout the bitter election fights of 2011 and 2012.
And because they were Ryan's first since his national campaign, they took on the tone of a homecoming at times. At several, he drew applause when he walked in.
"Welcome back to the Heartland," said a man in Oak Creek.
"I feel relaxed and comfortable and sort of back, I guess, at what I call my day job," he told voters in Kenosha.
He recognized many of his constituents by name, including his critics.
"You know the names and faces and voices . . . so it is very comfortable and familiar to me," Ryan said.
He suggested his role in the House is broader now than it was before he served on the GOP ticket.
"I have new and different responsibilities than I did before, and I see it as sort of an unofficial leadership role," said Ryan, who generally used very diplomatic language in his listening sessions to talk about the differences between the parties. He also offered guarded optimism about bipartisan deals on a handful of big issues.
"I'm trying to choose my words wisely to keep political space open for some common ground," he said. "I think we all have to be self-disciplined in nurturing that political space to evolve, which we haven't had for a long time. So I've got to watch (it). I've got to be disciplined."