House Republicans chose Paul D. Ryan to be speaker last October because they felt he could unify their fractured conference. As divisions over the budget have plagued the party for weeks, Ryan hasn't repaired the rift.
Yet the members don't blame him.
“I think that’s kind of unfair to try to tarnish Ryan," said Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. "There just doesn’t seem to be any easy solutions, but you can’t lay it all at his feet.”
At least four fifths of the roughly 40-member caucus opposes the budget, which would spend $1.07 trillion for fiscal 2017. Without their support, Ryan and his leadership team don't have the 218 votes needed to pass the budget resolution and begin the appropriations process.
Leadership allies like House Budget Chairman Tom Price, R-Ga., and Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who sits on both the budget and appropriations committees, remain confident they'll get there, despite conservatives saying they don't see a path forward.
“I would just urge people, ‘Trust your leadership.’" Cole said. "Paul Ryan is both a straight shooter and a staunch conservative.”
Ryan's willingness to be transparent with his members is one of the reasons he remains popular. The Wisconsin Republican assumed the speaker's post last fall after Ohio Republican John Boehner resigned amid unrelenting criticism from the House's conservative wing about his top-down leadership style.
“The way Boehner would’ve done it at this point of time is pick an option and then shove it down everybody’s throats,” Salmon said. “Ryan is at least magnanimous enough of a leader to realize he’s trying to get to consensus.
"It’s not getting there, but I give him big kudos for not going into some back-room deal with his staff and then coming out and shoving it down everybody’s throats, twisting arms, making threats. I find it kind of refreshing.”
Freedom Caucus member John Fleming, R-La., also commended Ryan for trying to get input from rank-and-file members. “Whether that’s going to be a better strategy is yet to be seen, but it is definitely a different approach,” he said.
The caucus has had conversations with leadership about what they need to support the budget, namely cut $30 billion from the top line. But so too have defense hawks who want to increase defense spending and appropriators who say they have to stick to $1.07 trillion number approved in a budget deal Boehner brokered last fall.
Ryan continues to say the conference will decide how to proceed "as a team," but their discussions have yet to yield an answer that will please 218 Republicans. A solution is unlikely to come soon, if at all.
“We’ve had these arguments now. Everyone is talking in circles,” Freedom Caucus founding member Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., said. “It’s time to go ahead and be done with it – either vote it up, vote it down or decide not to vote on it.”
That vote will not happen the week of March 21, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said. The House leaves on March 23 for a two and a half week recess. When they return on April 12, they’ll technically only have four days to pass a budget before the April 15 statutory deadline.
Since the Senate has already announced it won’t meet that deadline, there’s not much urgency for the House to do so, except to allow the chamber to begin considering appropriations bills. Otherwise, they can’t do so until May 15 unless they pass a rule waiving that requirement or a resolution deeming the $1.07 trillion top-line number, either of which would likely require a lot of Democratic votes.
“If you do something like that, you’re giving away all our leverage and our ability to achieve policy victories,” Cole said.
If the House doesn’t pass a budget, that’s because of dysfunction within the conference, not because Ryan didn’t try to find a solution, he added.
“If he can’t get there, then what’s the issue here? The issue is maybe you’re asking a speaker to deliver what only a prime minister can deliver,” Cole said. “And I’m sorry, we’re not the House of Commons here. We don’t have all legislative and all executive authority concentrated in a single chamber.”
Conservative members say they understand the political dynamics in the Senate and the White House, but that shouldn’t stop the House from taking their own stand.
“At some point people in leadership need to transition from always making excuses to persuading people that we need to act differently as a Congress,” Freedom Caucus founding member Justin Amash, R-Mich., said in an interview.
Fleming agreed. “This is our opportunity to be forceful with our leadership and with Democrats, [saying], ‘No you can’t ignore the realities of our budget.’”
Everyone knows Congress needs to reduce spending, particularly on entitlements, Fleming said. “It’s just that people don’t have the political courage to do it.”
That lack of courage is something voters are noticing back home, Freedom Caucus member David Brat, R-Va., said, defending his plan to vote against the budget unless $30 billion in mandatory savings can be enacted into law.
“It’s got to be kind of bullet proof with the Senate in flux,” Brat said. “It needs to be something that when I go home to the district, they don’t say, ‘Dave you got rolled again.’ I cannot have that.”
None of the half dozen conservatives Roll Call spoke with last week said they saw a proposal in play that would win their support for the budget. They options they've presented, like voting on a budget with $1.04 trillion spending level or enacting $30 billion in offsetting cuts, leadership has said isn't feasible.
“What our leadership is telling us now is that they lose more Republican votes at the lower budget number than they do at the higher budget number,” Mulvaney said. “And that doesn’t give Paul a lot of options.”
So conservatives say they won’t blame Ryan if they don’t pass a budget. If anything, they blame Boehner for cutting a bad deal.
Dan Holler, vice president of communications and government relations at Heritage Action, said Boehner’s “clean out the barn” budget agreement didn’t accomplish anything. But current leaders will receive blame for not trying to return to the lower spending level, he added.
Josh Withrow, legislative affairs manager at Freedom Works, also said he wouldn't disparage Ryan for a budget failure.
“My perspective is he is not the person that is most to blame here,” he said, noting Ryan has been trying to facilitate a compromise. The real blame, Withrow said, lies with the Republicans who were elected to Congress on promises they would get spending under control but have failed to do so.
Failing to keep promises has been a major failure of recent Republican leadership, Amash said. He’s hopeful that Ryan will prove to be different.
“Certainly we’ve had some legislation come up that I haven’t been happy with," he said, "but I’ve said before and will continue to say that we need to give this leadership team the full year to see how they act.”
Contact McPherson at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @lindsemcpherson.
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