WASHINGTON — Last summer, Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida were paired in an ad campaign touting Rubio’s immigration legislation. Last week, they were on opposite sides of a cable news snit about the efficacy of a two-year budget deal co-written by Ryan.
For these two young princes of the GOP, often hailed as the future of the Republican Party, a year of great ambition is ending in a muddle of unfinished business and disappointing compromises that may call their futures into question.
Once atop every list of potential presidential contenders, Rubio and Ryan now find themselves looking up at a handful of governors, ex-governors, and outspoken Tea Party leaders in the 2016 race.
And it seems that the cause of this diminished presidential stature can be traced directly to a single factor: the taint of Congress, the reviled institution in which they serve. Rubio, 42, and Ryan, 43, have spent the past months engaged in the ugly political process of legislative give and take: first Rubio’s immigration effort, which passed the Senate and is now stuck in the House, then Ryan’s compromise budget deal, which has glided to passage but isn’t earning him any medals for aspiration.
Those efforts represented the most substantive efforts by either lawmaker to try to bridge the GOP’s chasm between establishment conservatives and those who embrace the Tea Party’s confrontational style. Both were hailed by some of the party’s elder statesmen for doing the right thing, but both ended up on the receiving end of fierce criticism from conservatives.
Rubio is widely viewed as positioning himself for a 2016 run and is shying away from his leadership role on the immigration bill. Ryan appears more poised and confident than ever in the Capitol and seems noticeably more comfortable here than on the trail in early presidential primary states.
Ryan acknowledged as much this week. He told the Wall Street Journal that he intends to seek the chairmanship of the powerful Ways and Means Committee in 2015. At some point that year, he will decide whether to seek the presidency, but he acknowledged this week that his latest moves have done nothing to advance a presidential bid.
He said his budget deal was meant to help his party rather than boost his own standing.
‘‘If I was pining for myself, for what helps me in winning in Iowa or New Hampshire or whatever, I probably would have behaved differently but I think that would have been unethical behavior,’’ Ryan said.
On Tuesday, Rubio joined a group of 33 Republicans in a failed effort to filibuster the deal Ryan crafted with Senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, saying in a statement that the bill makes it ‘‘harder for more Americans to achieve the American Dream.’’
It didn’t used to be this complicated for the two young GOP stars. Ryan, the budget committee chairman, has been viewed as his party’s brain, the policy wonk with the bold entitlement-overhaul plan. Rubio has been viewed as its heart, the Cuban American with a personal Horatio Alger story and a soaring rhetorical style.
By the summer of 2012, Rubio and Ryan rose to the ranks of potential vice-presidential nominees, and even though Mitt Romney selected Ryan as his running mate, he gave Rubio one of the most prominent speeches of the Republican National Convention.
As the results came on Election Night 2012, Rubio became the most prominent Republican to call for expanding the GOP’s reach into minority and immigrant communities.
By the end of January, Rubio had joined seven senators in a bipartisan framework for a comprehensive immigration and border security bill that would include a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally. He became its highest-profile salesman, doing six Sunday political shows in a single day. It won bipartisan Senate approval with 68 votes.
Yet doubtful Tea Party activists accused him of giving amnesty to law-breaking immigrants. Even one of his biggest patrons, former South Carolina senator Jim DeMint, told a Florida TV interviewer that Rubio’s popularity among conservatives had been ‘‘hurt some’’ because of the bill.
DeMint’s Heritage Foundation, which has touted Ryan’s past budgets, blasted this week’s deal for causing ‘‘unnecessary pain for Americans,’’ and Rubio issued his own condemnation of the deal as Ryan and Murray were announcing it.
Late last week, Ryan grew restless from the criticism, particularly from Rubio, whose Senate Republicans have languished in the minority for seven straight years.
‘‘In the minority, you don’t have the burden of governing, of getting things done,’’ Ryan said Thursday on MSNBC’s ‘‘Morning Joe.’’