PHILADELPHIA — House Republicans won't shut down the government in September, Heritage Action is "constructive at the end of the day" and a person can write a book without necessarily running for president.
Those were some of the points Rep. Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., hit home during an exclusive interview with CQ Roll Call Wednesday afternoon from the ornate Union League Building in downtown Philadelphia.
The House Budget Committee chairman and 2012 vice presidential nominee was in the city to kick-off a 10-day national tour promoting his new book, which hit the stands Tuesday.
“The Way Forward: Renewing the American Idea” is part-memoir, part-sweeping policy proposal, and Ryan will be spending some of the waning days of August recess touting it in Wisconsin, Chicago, Florida, Oklahoma, Texas and California.
The tour features appearances in front of largely sympathetic audiences, like the group that populated the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia-sponsored event Wednesday night.
But the Wisconsin Republican, who has become one of the most recognizable faces in the GOP, also is likely to draw critics: Outside the Union League, a half dozen protesters demonstrated against Ryan proposals to cut benefits for senior citizens.
And no matter where he goes or how many times he brushes it aside, he'll face the inevitable question: Is Paul Ryan running for the White House in 2016?
“I honestly, literally, do not know the answer to that question,” Ryan told CQ Roll Call, explaining that the new book could be seen as an outline of his policy ambitions rather than a glimpse into his political aspirations.
He also played coy about his confidence level for winning the gavel of the Ways and Means Committee in the 114th Congress: “It’s poor form to start commenting on that when we still have an active chairman who has work to do.”
But Ryan was generous in sharing insights into other matters, from the legislative fights that loom later this year to the difference between Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and his predecessor, ex-Rep. Eric Cantor.
Here are some of the highlights:
On a possible government shutdown: In his book, Ryan calls the 2013 shutdown a "suicide mission" for the House GOP, and on Wednesday he told CQ Roll Call he agreed that Republicans were easy to blame for the events that transpired.
But House Republicans won't repeat that mistake this September, Ryan predicted: "We will pass a clean [continuing resolution], and if for some reason the Democrats don't take that, then they will clearly have shut the government down ... it will be patently obvious ... that they are playing politics with this, and trying to trigger a shutdown so they can blame us, but we're really blameless in this particular situation."
Ryan's confidence that his conference will cooperate in passing a stop-gap spending bill free of controversial policy riders — "until Dec. 11 is what we're thinking," said Ryan — contradicts Democrats' cries over the past few days that the GOP is spoiling for another shutdown that could cost them the election in November.
Ryan also said to count on the House backing a short-term re-authorization of the Export-Import Bank, which some conservatives want to dissolve entirely. The extension would be sunset before the end of the year in a compromise that buys Congress more time to agree on reforms to the institution.
On immigration: Ryan helped the House GOP leadership draft the set of “principles” for comprehensive immigration overhaul legislation, which were unrolled with much fanfare in late January but ultimately led nowhere.
Ahead of 2016, Ryan said, the Republican position on immigration “needs to be more than one page. That’s why I dedicated a number of pages to the issue in my book.”
It's imperative that whoever runs for president on the GOP ticket two years from now articulate a similarly nuanced vision if he or she wants to win, Ryan continued. As far as Congress goes, Ryan said the chances of the House doing something affirmative on the immigration front depends on whether Republicans take control of the Senate.
It also depends, he said, on whether President Barack Obama “poisons the well” with his anticipated executive orders.
On Kevin McCarthy: Ryan listed the California Republican as one of his colleagues in elected office who “gets it” when it comes to expanding the big tent of the Republican Party, along with Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and GOP governors Mike Pence of Indiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin.
He also said he expects McCarthy to be a solid majority leader.
“He’s going to be a very conscientious leader,” said Ryan. “Kevin is a consensus-builder kind of guy. He’s a conservative but he has a soft side to him in that he has a good approach to things and a good approach to people … I like his leadership style because he’s not going to be the kind of guy who tries to micromanage. He’s going to let people do their jobs. He’ll be a decentralized leader … I like leaders who empower committee chairs.”
Ryan wouldn’t delve so deeply into the differences between McCarthy and his predecessor, Cantor, who lost his primary in June in a stunning turn of events and resigned from office on Monday.
“One’s a Virginian, and one’s a Californian, and I think that explains it right there,” Ryan said with a laugh. “Kevin’s very Californian. I think that explains it right there.”
On helping the Republicans retake the House: In his book, Ryan describes the evolution of the Republican Party’s regard for his budget blueprint, which from the start was an unapologetically conservative vision that included significant spending cuts to popular programs. When it was first unveiled in 2008, the GOP establishment immediately shunned it; by 2010, it was providing a policy platform for Republican candidates who would ultimately help the party retake control of the House later that year.
"It was fantastic," Ryan told CQ Roll Call. "I felt finally at home in my own party."
Ryan said it hadn’t occurred to him to take credit for helping the party come back to power in the chamber, but he acknowledged that made sense.
“Sure, I guess so,” he said. "I didn’t really think of it like that."
On outside groups: Speaker John A. Boehner late last year famously blasted Heritage Action, Club for Growth and their ilk for pressuring members to thwart key legislative priorities and causing the government shutdown.
“Sometimes I get a little frustrated with them,” Ryan admitted, but quickly added, “I think they’re constructive at the end of the day.”
As detailed in his book, Ryan actually isn't a stranger to the outside group phenomenon: In the mid-90s, he got his start in Washington, D.C., politics working for a now-dissolved group called Empower America, which sought to drive the GOP congressional agenda in a more conservative direction.
"I was basically like the Heritage Action of the time," he told CQ Roll Call. "I really was. I see those guys and I see myself 20 years ago.”
In the intervening decades, Ryan says he's learned more about the legislative process: "I've just ... grown and become a little wiser about how things get done. And just a patience about what's involved, and appreciate that these things take persistence and patience, and you have to persuade people. You can't just impose your will."
But would Ryan do anything differently at Empower America if he had to do it all again, knowing then what he does now?
"Not at all.”
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