Paul D. Ryan has a choice.
If he wants the speakership, Ryan has a better shot than anyone else. But if past is truly prologue and the Wisconsin Republican really doesn't want the gavel, Ryan has a chance to pass on the position and still accomplish something: Weaken the rabble-rousing House Freedom Caucus. Sources close to the Ways and Means chairman tell CQ Roll Call Ryan is considering his options. But if he comes back to Washington next week and tells colleagues he'll take the job only if the entire Republican Conference supports him, Ryan will put conservatives in a tough spot.
A number of members of the House Freedom Caucus insist their support or opposition doesn't hinge on a particular person. They say it's the legislative process — in particular which bills and amendments get votes — that needs to be fixed. And without a pledge to overhaul the process, it doesn't matter who is up for the job; some HFC members say they will oppose the Republican speaker candidate on the floor.
If the HFC, after largely taking credit for pushing out Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and blocking the ascension of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is seen as having scuttled a Ryan speakership, the divide between the ultra-conservative group and the rest of the conference could become even more unmanageable.
Without Ryan, the speaker's race threatens to turn into a free-for-all. On Tuesday, there were at least a half dozen new names of Republicans quietly testing the water for runs of their own, including a couple of Texans (Reps. Bill Flores and Michael McCaul), the wealthiest man in Congress (Rep. Darrell Issa) and a woman , Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn.
Already there are voices on the right questioning the conservative credentials of Ryan, who is being criticized for past comments on immigration and a spending deal he cut with former Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., that lifted the sequester spending caps.
Sources close to Ryan say the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee has no intention of putting up with an insurrection on his right flank. If Ryan agrees to take the speakership, he will tell colleagues he'll only do it with all of their support. What's more, he is making no promises about overhauling the process, shaking up the Steering Committee or any of the other concessions being floated by conservatives.
If that's Ryan's position, there will almost certainly be Republicans who will oppose him. And then conservatives will have a choice of their own. They can either hold fast to their procedural demands, or they can get on board with a Ryan speakership.
Uniting the conference would be a tall order for any Republican, but Ryan likely has 218 GOP votes to win the gavel. As much as House Freedom Caucus leaders like to tout their influence over 40 votes, Ryan might be able to peel off as many as half of that bloc — especially if he is willing to ease some conservative concerns about a more inclusive legislative process.
One senior GOP aide familiar with discussions between leadership and the Freedom Caucus used Dante Alighieri's description of hell in "The Divine Comedy," with its varying concentric circles, to describe the HFC. No candidate will get to the innermost circle. But Ryan could pick off a lot of members on the outer rings.
Much of how the Freedom Caucus responds to an ultimatum from Ryan might come down to whether his no-promises decree is set in stone. If he can give conservatives some assurances he will listen to their ideas and include them in the process, Ryan will make it difficult for a number of HFC members to oppose him on the floor.
But if Ryan doesn't actually want the job, as he has said numerous times, he can apply a strict policy, give conservatives no assurances, and simply back out of a speaker bid when it's clear he will be opposed on the floor. Another source familiar with Ryan's thinking said he could see him taking a harder stance against conservatives — and conservatives can probably see that dynamic playing out, too.
The extent to which it's difficult for conservatives to oppose Ryan, and to how much damage he actually does to conservatives opposed to him, will depend on how much Ryan wants to kiss the ring. And how much he wants to do that will depend greatly on whether he actually wants this job.
Either way, it will be a balancing act for Ryan and the Freedom Caucus. Ryan can have an effect on the conference by passing on the speakership in a particular way, just as he can have an effect by accepting the job.
Ultimately, it will depend on what Ryan really wants. And how much he's willing to sacrifice to appease everyone else.