It was October 1998, and Hillary Clinton's midterm campaign swing for Democratic candidates brought the first lady on a Saturday afternoon to a middle-school gymnasium in Janesville, Wisconsin.

A 28-year-old conservative upstart from the town was running for Congress - and Clinton, rallying 1200 people with a rip-roaring denunciation of Republicans, was trying to stop him.

Clinton's efforts failed, of course. Paul Ryan went on to win, and he has held his House seat in Wisconsin's industrial southeastern corner for nearly two decades as he has risen to become the highest-ranking Republican in the country.

Clinton and Ryan did not know each other then, and they barely have a personal rapport now. When they served together on Capitol Hill, they did not collaborate. They have crossed paths only a few times, in perfunctory meetings while she was Secretary of State.


Clinton, 68, and Ryan, 47, also have no apparent social ties - although they do share a book agent, Washington superlawyer Robert Barnett.

Nonetheless, their relationship could become Washington's most important in determining whether the federal Government functions over the next four years, should Clinton win the presidency and Ryan retain his majority - as polls show is probable, although not certain, for both.

This year's melodrama of a campaign has provided a window into the uneasy Donald Trump-Ryan relationship, which appeared to reach its breaking point this week. What's less clear is what a Clinton-Ryan relationship would look like.

"It's fine," Ryan said flatly, when asked about his relationship with Clinton at a late September breakfast hosted by the Economic Club of Washington. "I've only had two or three conversations with her. . . . I can't really say I know her very well."

The relationship would hinge on how Clinton decides to begin her potential presidency. She could claim an electoral mandate and launch a pitched battle to pass the more progressive parts of her agenda. Or she could start with a relatively incremental push on a menu of domestic issues on which she and Ryan have shared interests, including infrastructure investment, criminal justice revisions and anti-poverty measures.

"Do they want to begin it at loggerheads or with some signal to a very frustrated electorate that there is ground to be gained by focusing on the overlap between their two agendas?" asked William Galston, an official in President Bill Clinton's Administration and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

House Speaker Paul Ryan. Photo / AP
House Speaker Paul Ryan. Photo / AP

There is a glaring fault line between optimism and pessimism about Clinton and Ryan forging a productive partnership. Some see the pair as policy wonks with pragmatic instincts who are poised to break the logjam. Others think their political caution and entrenched ideologies would prevent them from defying their bases to resolve disputes and build agreements.

"To assume Washington is going to work next year is to assume she's not Clinton and he's not Ryan," said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has been advising Trump and had made legislative pacts with Bill Clinton on issues such as welfare reform and spending.


"Paul Ryan will not be dealing with Bill Clinton," Gingrich said. "I had a guy I could talk to who had been the Governor of Arkansas and dealt with that state's legislature and helped to found a centrist organisation," he added, referring to the Democratic Leadership Council. "Hillary, on the other hand, is someone who is hard left. They are totally different people with different instincts."

The other power broker in the Clinton-Gingrich negotiations, former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, has a far different assessment.

Lott pointed to the lessons Clinton took away from watching her husband negotiate with Congress, as well as the warm relationships she built with Lott and other Republicans when she served in the Senate. He said Ryan has an even temperament and eagerness to shed his party's reputation as obstructionist, as evidenced by the budget deal he struck with Senator Patty Murray in late 2013.

"Paul Ryan's nature is to try and find a way to make things work," Lott said. "And Hillary has seen how important communication is. She understands they're not just a bunch of rogues up there. . . . You've got to be willing to give a little to get a little. That's how Bill Clinton and I made deals across the board."

Ryan's biggest obstacle to partnering with Clinton would probably be the House Freedom Caucus, a group of dozens of hard-line conservatives whose threats of rebellion led Ryan's predecessor, John Boehner of Ohio, to resign and who have become a thorn in Ryan's side.

One member, Congressman Dave Brat, who ousted then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a primary two years ago, vowed to work with Clinton on issues such as fighting terrorism, but he said, "I don't see a lovefest."

"For us, it's not about Paul Ryan; it's about constraining anyone who's opposed to stopping the expansion of the federal government," Brat said.

House Republican leaders have said that if Clinton is elected, they intend to continue their investigation into her use of a private email server as Secretary of State, forecasting a stormy atmosphere. "Next year could be very much like 1998, when we impeached Bill Clinton," Gingrich said.

Congressman Chris Van Hollen, who worked with Ryan on the Budget Committee, said "the jury is still out" on the prospects for common ground.

"The question for Paul Ryan is: Is he going to be a Speaker who wants to try and govern with President Clinton or continue to kowtow to the Tea Party faction? I think that battle within the Republican caucus is unavoidable. . . . If he wants to get stuff done, he's going to have to be willing to have that showdown," Van Hollen said.

On top of the possible tensions between the Speaker and Clinton could be a Senate with a narrow majority, with either Republican Mitch McConnell or Democrat Charles Schumer, as majority leader depending on election results.

People who know Ryan said his amiable disposition can do only so much to connect with Clinton. "He'd be gracious and a gentleman, sure - less confrontational than Newt, and he'd be smoother than John Boehner," said William Bennett, a close friend of Ryan's and a former education secretary under President Ronald Reagan. But, Bennett said, "These aren't people who are going out to dinner."

Further complicating Ryan's calculations could be his own political ambitions - namely, whether Ryan, the GOP's vice-presidential nominee in 2012, would try to position himself to run against Clinton in 2020.

Clinton probably would face similar pressures. She is distrusted by the party's liberal wing, which fuelled the formidable primary challenge of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders, Senator Elizabeth Warren and their followers have signalled they would try to halt any move to the middle by a President Hillary Clinton on bedrock programmes such as Social Security and Medicare, which Ryan has long targeted for sweeping changes.