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Paul Ryan attacked Bernie Sanders. It backfired spectacularly.

Left, photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
Right, photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

A specter is haunting Speaker Paul Ryan — the specter of Bernie Sanders controlling the Senate budget committee.

Speaking at an event with College Republicans in Wisconsin earlier this week, Ryan warned that letting the Senate slip back into Democratic hands might give Vermont’s democratic socialist one of the most powerful positions for shaping the federal budget.

“If we lose the Senate, do you know who becomes chairman of the Senate budget committee?,” Ryan said, according to the Nation. “A guy named Bernie Sanders. Ever heard of him? That’s what we’re dealing with here if we lose control of the Senate.”

Ryan’s hit on Sanders backfired, badly. Citing Ryan’s comments in a fundraising blast, Sanders was able to raise just under $2 million in two days for about a dozen Democratic Senate and House candidates — furthering his chances of actually becoming budget committee chair.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the fundraising haul was North Carolina Democrat Deborah Ross, who could unseat Republican Sen. Richard Burr in the state, according to the Washington Post. Sanders has made helping in down-ballot races a big priority since exiting the presidential primary, and he was quick to jump at the opportunity created by Ryan’s remarks.

Try to imagine a Ryan-Sanders budget negotiation

For the audience he was addressing, Ryan’s remarks made sense: Conservatives, even young conservatives, have no great love for Bernie Sanders. In that context, citing the Vermont senator to frame the stakes of the 2016 election makes sense.

The problem for Ryan was that his remarks quickly ricocheted around the web and national media. And Sanders doesn’t just retain a big and loyal following that can quickly raise big gobs of cash — he also remains wildly popular with the American public at large.

In fact, as Princeton historian Matt Karp noted this week in Jacobin, Sanders has the highest favorability ratings of any major American politician. Turning the congressional elections into a referendum on Sanders himself is not, from any strategic standpoint, a good move for Ryan:

Moreover, as John Nichols notes in the Nation, Sanders really does stand to dramatically increase his clout if the Democrats retake the Senate. Nichols writes:

Sanders could also end up chairing the powerful Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, which he could use to advance many of the proposals (for affordable college, empowering unions, and investing in public-health programs) that made his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination so popular.

The final list of committee assignments will be influenced by the choices of senior senators, such as Washington’s Patty Murray. “There’s lots of individual choices ahead, of people who are senior to Bernie,” says Senator Charles Schumer of New York, who is set to replace retiring Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada. Yet Schumer says of Sanders, “He will chair a significant committee if we win the majority.’’

In other words, nobody knows exactly how much standing Sanders will have in the next Senate Democratic caucus. But he seems poised to play a big role.

And just trying to imagine how Ryan and Sanders might try to strike a budget deal may make your head spin. Sanders has called for raising taxes on the top 0.1 percent by an average of $3 million. Ryan’s plans would slash the taxes paid by each member of the 1 percent by a quarter-million. Sanders proposed the most dramatic expansion of welfare programs out of every candidate in this year’s race. Ryan would decimate programs for the poor by two-thirds. Sanders wants a single-payer health care system. Ryan wants to raise the Medicare retirement age and has pushed a health care plan that risks leaving millions uninsured.

This week’s minor skirmish between Ryan and Sanders will quickly fade into the background noise of a loud campaign. But in a few years, we may look back and see it as a preview of the major power struggle in the next Congress.

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