When the House Freedom Caucus emerged from a closed-door meeting Wednesday night, the surprise wasn't that they hadn't formally endorsed Paul D. Ryan to be speaker. It was how close they had come.
Roughly 70 percent of the Freedom Caucus — 27 out of 39 members — voted to support Ryan. That tally fell short of the group’s standard of a four-fifths majority, or 80 percent, to take an official position. But it was good enough for Ryan to feel as though he had the support to move forward.
The story of how Ryan secured so much support, and why, lends insight into the secretive operations of the Freedom Caucus -- and also reveals a relationship between the HFC members and its leaders that is more complex than previously known.
While Freedom Caucus members are notoriously autonomous, founding members granted anonymity to discuss the internal deliberations told CQ Roll Call the nine-member board led the HFC to adopt a unified strategy. That plan would not block Ryan’s ascent to the speakership, but would hope the GOP conference would not meet his additional conditions.
Among those conditions was a demand from Ryan that the House change the motion to vacate the chair.
That request fomented immediate HFC opposition. In the words of a different founding member: “Like, it took us two seconds to decide that, no, we’re not going to agree to the demands.”
But when the Freedom Caucus met early Wednesday morning, one board member opposed to Ryan volunteered a novel approach: The HFC, he said, should issue a statement that supports the former vice presidential nominee, but does not agree to his conditions.
In that scenario, the member argued, the Freedom Caucus would dodge the blame for blocking Ryan, but would also not necessarily hand him the gavel. The member believed Ryan didn’t really want the job, and that the full House wouldn’t agree to the Ways and Means chairman's other conditions, particularly changes to the motion to vacate the chair.
The tactic gained traction ahead of Wednesday's HFC meeting. At some point, a group that was poised to oppose Ryan found themselves figuring out how they could get the rest of the HFC to support him. A few HFC board members started drafting a statement of support for Ryan -- one that also would note the caucus didn’t agree to his conditions.
Part of the calculus in this strategy was that blocking Ryan would damage the Freedom Caucus. House Republicans in general, already tired of seeing their leaders derailed by the conservative group, would be outraged if 39 members stymied their dream speaker. Even within the House Freedom Caucus, there were several strong Ryan supporters who founders worried might leave the group over a thwarted Ryan speakership.
“It was clear to us that the Freedom Caucus provides a nice out for someone looking to avoid the job,” one founding member said. “And we had no intention of giving him that out.”
Without the numbers to block Ryan on the House floor, and seeking not to destroy their group, the founders sought unity. “Our goal has always been to keep the group together,” Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho said.
Justin Amash, another founding member, said there were Freedom Caucus "members with reservations about Paul who understood that the statement was the best way to proceed."
Ryan now faces a GOP Conference vote Oct. 28, with the full House vote the next day. While a number of members suggested changes to the motion to vacate the chair were a poison pill that would prevent Ryan from running, he has now agreed to make that discussion part of a larger overhaul of rules and procedures.
One HFC member told CQ Roll Call that the Freedom Caucus had “overplayed our hand.”
He noted that majority of the HFC had voted for John A. Boehner to be speaker, and that more than half of the caucus probably would have supported Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy on the floor if he had gone for the job.
The reality is, members said in different interviews, Ryan could have always been speaker if he wanted to. And, if anything, they’ve gained some credibility with the conference.
“You got to play the cards you’re dealt,” said Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., one of the founding members.