Politics

Analysis: Tough Road Ahead for Ryan in 2018

Will he want to stay in Congress after navigating immigration, budget and midterm challenges?

Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., pictured arriving at the Capitol for a meeting to kick off 2018 spending negotiations, has a tough road ahead this year that could make him question his future in Washington. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Speaker Paul D. Ryan insists he’s not going anywhere anytime soon, but he has a tough road ahead in 2018 that could test his patience with his conference, their Senate counterparts, the president and Washington. 

The Wisconsin Republican is known for keeping his cool under pressure. Thus far in his still young speakership, he’s managed to diffuse disagreements within the House Republican Conference before they’ve reached a boiling point. He also claimed a significant victory last year with passage of the landmark tax overhaul bill, a long-held priority for the former Budget and tax-writing chairman.   

But 2018 could be different. Landmines confront him at every turn, from must-pass spending and immigration legislation to supposedly routine tasks like lifting the nation’s borrowing limit and passing a budget blueprint.

The GOP has yet to officially settle on its big agenda items for the year, but Ryan’s preference for overhauling welfare programs is already being declared dead on arrival in the Senate. A second shot at repealing and replacing the 2010 health care law also appears unlikely. And a more popular infrastructure package won’t be an easy lift, especially in the House, where conservatives want to rein in spending, not authorize more of it.

As if those tasks aren’t trying enough, Ryan will be taking them all on while leading Republicans’ efforts to hold onto control of the House in this year’s midterm elections. 

With the obstacles ahead and the low probability that Ryan and Republicans can clear them all unscathed, the speculation about the speaker’s future is not surprising. 

Last month, Ryan tried to tamp down rumors that he planned to resign soon or would retire at the end of 2018. 

“Oh, look, I’m not going anywhere anytime soon, and just let’s leave that thing at that,” he said at a Dec. 19 news conference. He did not define “soon” or otherwise provide a timeline for how long he planned to remain speaker.

Those who buy into what Ryan deemed “faulty speculation” expect the Wisconsin Republican wouldn’t announce a decision to leave until after the 2018 midterms. 

Undecided?

Ryan indicated in a C-SPAN interview last week that he hasn’t decided whether he wants to stay on for another term.

“That’s something that my wife and I discuss in the election year in the spring,” he said. “We have this customary conversation before [the] filing deadline in Wisconsin. That’s the kind of conversation we’ll have then, but I have no plans in going anywhere right now.”

Whatever idea Ryan has in his mind now and even what he decides in the spring could change in November. The GOP conference will likely hold its leadership elections for the 116th Congress that month, shortly after the midterms. 

“My personal view is no speaker should ever commit to a timeline on something like that,” GOP Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said last month. “Look, you stay as long as you can be effective. ... And I think the election should be a factor that everybody takes into account.”

If Republicans lose control of the House, that would provide Ryan with little incentive to stick around. The 47-year-old (who turns 48 on Jan. 29) said he doesn’t anticipate spending his entire adult life in Washington. So why would he want to waste two more more years in the minority, hoping to regain the speaker’s gavel that he never wanted in the first place?

Holding onto the majority could still present Ryan with a difficult decision, since the GOP is likely to lose some seats. A smaller majority would make it harder for Ryan to cobble together votes within his fractious conference, especially since losses will come from moderate districts whose representatives typically back the speaker when conservatives revolt. 

November’s results won’t be the only factor for Ryan to consider when contemplating his future. The outcome of legislative battles he faces between now and then will also weigh heavily. 

4 Takeaways From the 2018 Congressional Calendar

Spending, immigration battles

Ryan’s first major challenge of 2018 will be selling his conference on anticipated bipartisan deals to raise the sequestration spending caps and to replace the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program that shelters some 800,000 young undocumented immigrants from deportation. 

Conservatives expect that whatever budget cap increase leaders agree to, it will be too much for them to accept. And on DACA, most House Republicans are likely to label as amnesty any solution that meets Democrats’ standards for protecting the so-called Dreamers.

The key for Ryan on both issues is to try to shore up support from a majority of his 239-member conference. That shouldn’t be too difficult on the budget caps so long as the deal includes a significant boost to defense spending. 

The challenge is much greater on DACA because many House Republicans have hard-line views favoring proposals to cut down on most types of immigration and opposing measures to help people who arrived in the country illegally. 

Ryan, Pelosi Disagree on DACA Solution

President Donald Trump has provided conservatives cover with his own demands for an immigration deal. He wants approval for a border wall and the end of the diversity visa lottery program and extended family visas in exchange for a replacement for the DACA program he decided to end. 

Ryan has already struggled to thread the needle between legislation his conference prefers and bipartisan talks likely to produce a different framework.

With most Democrats pushing a path to citizenship for Dreamers and most Republicans opposed — and many even questioning a permanent legal status option — a deal is unlikely to appeal to a majority of both parties. 

The prospect of a DACA deal that can secure needed Democratic votes in the Senate selling to a majority of House Republicans is low. And that’s not good for Ryan, who promised conservatives when he became speaker that he wouldn’t bring any immigration measure to the floor without support of more than half the conference. 

Earmarks, debt ceiling

In the middle of the battles over spending caps and immigration, Ryan is allowing discussion of another contentious topic — the return of earmarks. A transparent form of “congressionally directed spending,” as earmark proponents like to call it, appears to have support of a majority of House Republicans. 

The conference was poised to pass a rule allowing a narrow return of earmarks in November 2016. Ryan, worried about the optics following Trump’s election on a platform of “draining the swamp,” requested they delay the debate, promising a vote on the matter in the first quarter of 2017

That vote never occurred, but Ryan is now allowing the House Rules Committee to hold hearings on the matter this week. The push to restore earmarks gained momentum when Trump endorsed the idea last week, but Ryan is not sold.

“I just worry that it could lead to pork barrel spending; I worry it will lead to bad government,” he said in the C-SPAN interview.

Another looming issue Republicans struggle with is the debt ceiling. It will need to be raised or suspended again in February or March.

After Trump sided with Democrats on the last increase, Ryan formed a task force to look into spending and budget process changes Republicans would support in exchange for raising the debt limit. But the need for Democratic support in the Senate will present its usual obstacles to making those proposals feasible.

Welfare push

Beyond confrontations expected with his own conference, Ryan will also have to hold his ground against the Senate if he wants to advance what he sees as the logical follow-up to the tax overhaul: reducing mandatory spending through entitlement changes. 

In the C-SPAN interview, Ryan acknowledged that changes to programs like Social Security and Medicare are not in the cards this year.

“We have a challenge in that they have a razor-thin majority over in the Senate and it’s extremely hard to pass big things like this,” he said.

Yet Ryan expressed hope Congress can overhaul welfare programs, wean people off government benefits and get them into the workforce. 

House Republicans have Ryan’s back on that. They see the budget reconciliation process as the vehicle to changing entitlements, but Senate Republicans are hesitant.

Because of the thin Senate majority he mentioned, Ryan will have to convince Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that the issue is worth pursuing.

McConnell would likely want House Republicans to prove they can pass a budget before agreeing to anything, given they’ve struggled with that the past few years. A deal to increase spending caps will make passing a budget harder, since the blueprint would be written to those topline numbers that fiscal conservatives are expected to oppose. 

With the obstacles to passing legislation through reconciliation, Trump and GOP leaders are expressing hope for more bipartisan cooperation in 2018. One area they say is ripe for that is infrastructure. But the parties have struggled to reach agreement in this area before because of divisions on how much federal money should be spent. 

Ryan, when asked on C-SPAN to name the biggest challenge for him as speaker, had an honest assessment: “Getting things passed, getting big things done.”

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