Speaker Paul D. Ryan wants Republicans to “go on offense on ideas” in 2016, but he has only committed to drafting the playbook, not running the plays.
The leadership strategy of protecting members from difficult votes was one Ryan’s predecessor, John A. Boehner of Ohio, employed — and one that did not always sit well with conservatives. So what does it mean if Ryan prevents his members from voting on the “bold” 2016 agenda he wants them to get behind? “It means we’re not being adequately heard still,” Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said before leaving for a week's recess. Asked if members would judge Ryan’s speakership on that, Gohmert said, “I don’t know. I’ll have to wait and see. It depends on how it happens.”
When House members return to Capitol Hill over the next week, Republicans said in interviews they are ready to dig into the five policy areas that Ryan has outlined for his agenda: national security, the economy, health care, poverty and constitutional powers. Ryan has pledged to set up committee-led task forces, which will offering listening sessions for members who want to contribute to the policy development.
Several members say they want to go beyond merely developing ideas.
“What I want to see is an agenda that’s backed up by substantive legislation, that’s backed up by an affirmative floor vote of the House,” Republican Study Committee Chairman Bill Flores said.
The Texas Republican acknowledged the legislative calendar, with extended breaks for political conventions and campaigning, is not going to allow the House time to take up bills in each of the five areas this year. But he said it’s worth drafting “tangible pieces of legislation that I believe our presidential candidate can hang their hat on and say, ‘If you put me in the White House, I’ll sign that bill.’”
This is particularly true when it comes to replacing the Affordable Care Act. Republicans have talked about repealing the law for years, but have yet to coalesce around an alternative health care plan. Voters back home have begun to notice, lawmakers said. Flores said he expects at least half the Republican conference would support bringing the matter to the floor.
“I think a number of us want to vote on something,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C. “But shy of a vote is to make sure that this is the plan that we’re all committed to, that we’ll all vote on if and when the legislative calendar allows it to happen.”
Managing the expectations of the fractious Republican Conference represents a key test for Ryan, who assumed the speaker's post in October pledging to deliver a unified vision for the party. After sharing his priorities at the GOP issues retreat earlier this month, he received a standing ovation. Afterwards, he indicated the House is unlikely to vote on the policy ideas Republican members will develop because they can't be passed into law this year, given the Democrat in the White House.
“Our goal here is not to simply just pass things and watch them go nowhere because we have a White House that doesn’t agree with us," the speaker said on "Fox News Sunday" in an interview with Chris Wallace taped after the GOP retreat concluded on Jan. 15. Before that, Ryan had said on multiple occasions that members would decide whether the agenda items would be drafted into legislation and brought to the floor.
Rep. Jim Jordan, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, said it's time for Republicans to deliver on their pledges to overhaul the tax code, the health care system and welfare and entitlement programs. “I think we should not just talk about them but pass legislation and say here’s what we are for,” the Ohio Republican said.
While most lawmakers share that sentiment, some acknowledge floor votes are unlikely given that the legislative calendar effectively ends in mid July.
“That doesn’t mean that we can keep doing what we’re doing, which is nothing," Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C. "That does not mean we can keep quiet. I think Republicans back home would understand that our welfare reform bill doesn’t become law. They’ll understand why our Obamacare replacement doesn’t become law. But they won’t understand why we’re not offering those things in the first place.”
House Budget Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., who has authored one of several Republican health care overhaul proposals, said it's important for Republicans to show they have solutions to the problems they believe Democrats have created. “And my sensibilities tell me that the best way to do that is with a vote,” he said.
While most Republicans they should pass a health care plan to replace Obama's, Flores said, "There’s going to be a more reserved component of the conference that wouldn’t want to do that because it might be tough in an election."
Rep. Greg Walden, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, isn't so sure about that. He said he has not heard from any members who are concerned about voting on the big ideas Republicans are discussing. “It’s part of the job; it really is,” the Oregon Republican said. “And if it’s not good for their district, they’ll vote no.”
Rep. Carlos Curbelo, a Republican freshman from a swing district in Florida, agreed. “I might be traditionally one of those members who says, ‘Oh let’s try to do as little as possible here and I’ll just try to run on being a nice guy and having a nice family.’ That’s not fair," he said. "We need show how we would run this country differently — better — and we can only do that by advancing ideas.”
Curbelo said he wants to vote on a health care alternative, a revamp of poverty programs and even an immigration overhaul. “Let’s be honest; let’s be transparent; let’s show all our cards,” he said. “The game has gone on for too long.”
Despite the overwhelming interest in holding floor votes on their ideas, some House Republicans understand why leadership is reluctant to go that route.
“Nothing ever gets done in D.C. without presidential leadership,” Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said, adding that the policy ideas Republicans come up with will need to be vetted before they’re ready for a vote.
Major bills are hard to pass under any circumstance, Mulvaney said, noting that when Democrats had full control of Congress and the White House, they weren’t able to do much more than pass the 2009 stimulus bill and the 2010 health care overhaul. "They never got to immigration, they never got to — in their minds — gun control,” he said. “I mean they didn’t get all the big things, even when they ran the place unchecked.”
The GOP will face similar challenges in the next Congress, even if a Republican is elected president this fall.
“My preference would be to advance bills where you can get some level of consensus because even if there’s a Republican president, we’re still going to need the bill to pass the Senate,” Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., head of the moderate Tuesday Group, said. “And no one is expecting that Republicans will have a filibuster-proof majority after this election.”
Given those dynamics, Republicans need to be “very realistic” in their approach to passing bills, Dent said, but added, “I suspect there will be some who will pretend we’re operating in a unicameral system.”
Still, if Republicans truly want to go on offense, as Ryan says, they need to prove they can execute their plays and actually advance their ideas through the legislative process.
“The floor vote shows that we’re willing to do more than talk about it,” Flores said. “The floor vote shows that we’re willing to put our constituents voting cards into the slot and vote on behalf of our constituents.”
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