WISCONSIN Republican Rep. Paul Ryan has had a change of heart and mind. The congressman whom congressional Republicans have been all but begging to seek the post occupied til month’s end by Ohio Rep. John Boehner has decided to formally seek the position of Speaker of the House, the lightning-rod perch in the Republican-majority body.
"I believe we are ready to move forward as a one, united team. And I am ready and eager to be our speaker," Ryan wrote late Thursday in a letter to fellow Republicans. Expect the GOP House members to move quickly to prevent any gaps in leadership by electing Ryan to be speaker. The Washington Post reported on Oct. 21 that the House Freedom Caucus will do its part to usher Ryan in with a “supermajority” of its members set to vote for the Wisconsin congressman.
Republicans will nominate a new speaker on Wednesday; a vote’s expected in the full House on Thursday. If Ryan wins and becomes speaker ... his brand will be crisis. From the moment the gavel comes down.
Because once he’s formally selected, after all the celebratory hoopla passes, Ryan will find himself in a whole new world of political horse-trading and intrigue. The man who will be second in the line of presidential succession will find that striving for consensus between the House and an Obama White House eager to put a defining stamp on its final 14 months is not an option. The game-changer for House Republicans will be a game-changer for the new man in charge too.
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Those Pantone-red conservatives, now largely under the House Freedom Caucus banner, haven’t gone away, and they’re not going anywhere. Placating them, moderating their intensity, hearing their demands and concerns will be among Ryan’s more immediate challenges.
He seemed to sense this in his Thursday letter. “I know many of you want to show the country how to fix our tax code, how to rebuild our military, how to strengthen the safety net, and how to lift people out of poverty. And we can show the country what a commonsense conservative agenda looks like.”
But there’s a good chance — pledges of party unity behind Ryan aside — that those same Republicans may now feel bolder than usual. Having effectively run one Speaker out of the House, the more avowedly conservative Republicans may smell blood in the water, and seize an opportunity to impose their partisan will on the new speaker right from the jump.
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BUT STILL, if he is named speaker, the expectations for Ryan couldn’t be higher — and neither could the risk of abuse. David Wasserman at Five Thirty Eight put it well: “Once, the office of speaker was a noble aspiration or a slowly plotted lifelong ambition, achieved by clever parliamentary tacticians like Sam Rayburn, Tip O’Neill, Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi. These days, the job pretty much requires its occupant to wear a ‘kick me’ sign.”
For some, Ryan can do no wrong. "He can heal all these factional differences," said Florida Representative Carlos Curbelo told Reuters on Thursday. But before Curbelo and others start measuring Ryan for a garment they can touch the hem of, there’s reality to contend with.
There’s the reality Ryan’s promised if he wins election as speaker. David Sirota of International Business Times reported on Sunday that, if Ryan prevails, he intends to name corporate lobbyist-on-steroids J. David Hoppe as his chief of staff.
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“And Hoppe has lobbied for Cayman Finance, whose business ‘promot[ing] the development of the Cayman Islands financial services industry’ could be affected by legislation to crack down on offshore tax havens.”
That’s not exactly the signal a new Speaker of the House wants to send — to the White House or the nation as a whole — if he wants to reinforce the idea of being his own man and turning a page on the past. You don’t heal factional differences with a K Street lobbyist at your elbow. And in charge of your office.
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AND THEN there’s the reality that the new speaker inherits. As Wasserman notes, the intra-party divisions in the House don’t break down on purely binary lines. Besides the House Freedom Caucus, peace must be made with the Republican Study Committee, a stronghold for mainstream conservatives, and the Tuesday Group, a more centrist group defined by what Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent told Bloomberg Politics was “an affirmative obligation to govern.”
“[U]pon closer inspection, the House GOP conference isn’t simply divided in two,” Wasserman reported. “It’s more useful to view its members on a spectrum. On one end are those most willing to back up the chamber’s leaders and cast tough votes for spending bills needed to keep the government open. On the other are the unwilling rebels most aligned with ideological groups such as Heritage Action for America and the Club for Growth, who are adamant about the need for spending cuts. A large group of members are scattered in between.”
There’s still room for optimism. The Washington Post reports that “the level of Freedom Caucus support represents the first thaw in the increasingly frosty relationship between tea party conservatives and establishment Republicans.”
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“The anger over Ryan’s ascent has been fueled by voices across the conservative media landscape,” The Washington Post reported on Sunday. “On the Internet, sites such as Breitbart.com and the Drudge Report have pumped out a steady stream of anti-Ryan stories casting doubt on his record, while such prominent commentators as Erick Erickson, Ann Coulter and Mickey Kaus have sharpened their teeth and urged conservatives to contact lawmakers and tell them to spurn Ryan.”
And Webster, the Florida Congressman who went after Boehner’s post in January, isn’t going gentle. “People are responding to what I’m saying,” he told The Post on Oct. 21. “They’re sick of how this place is run, of the dog-and-pony shows on committees. They want a return to bills from members being considered, rather than approving the leadership’s bills.”
“[If Ryan] assumes responsibility to govern,” Wasserman said in Five Thirty Eight, “his record will begin to take on more importance than his star résumé, and the harsh realities of House politics will force him to leave at least some admirers disappointed.”
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THIS IS NOW what awaits Ryan, the presumptive speaker: the same “harsh realities of House politics” that forced his predecessor to exit on terms not entirely his own. The same “harsh realities” that could make him not just the next Speaker of the House but also ... the new John Boehner.
After an informal canvass of House members — a kind of whip count for speaker — GOP Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina told The Post that Ryan had won the confidence of the ones he needed.
“I think he satisfied many of us that he was going to change business as usual in Washington, D.C.,” Mulvaney said. That admirable goal has been recycled often. Change business as usual in Washington. The last politician of any consequence to try achieving that goal was Barack Obama.
Then he became the president of the United States.
Image credits: Ryan top: Reuters/Joshua Roberts. Boehner: J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press. Hoppe: C-SPAN. Webster: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call.