With Speaker Paul D. Ryan retiring after this Congress ends in January, he seemingly has newfound freedom to either make a stronger push for conservative policy priorities or strike bipartisan grand bargains with Democrats.
In reality, the Wisconsin Republican has little room to do either — at least not until after November.
Ryan plans to hold on to his speaker’s gavel through the remainder of his term, meaning he will still be the person in charge of making decisions that are in House Republicans’ best interest. In a midterm election cycle where the party is in danger of losing dozens of House seats and potentially its majority, Ryan’s likely call will be to not rock the boat.
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That doesn’t mean the speaker won’t push conservative bills through the chamber. For example, his conference is already preparing to move a partisan farm bill that adds work requirements to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
Democrats oppose the bill over that change, labeling it an attempt to push thousands of people out of the program.
But overall, Ryan is not likely to push harder or further than he did before he announced his retirement. He will still run into the same obstacles — namely the Senate’s 60-vote threshold for legislation — and use the same excuses for the GOP’s failure to get things done. That is, blame Senate Democrats.
“Knowing Paul, knowing the speaker as I do, having worked with him for so many years, if there’s a path to get policy enacted and it’s conservative in nature — it’s just the nature of how he is; he’s a proud Republican — he’ll take it and he’ll push it,” Rep. Tom Reed said. “And he would’ve pushed it before his retirement announcement and he’ll continue to push it after.
But there likely won’t be a path to getting much done, the New York Republican acknowledged.
As elections get closer, Reed said he feels frustrated with the resistance by many to tackle politically sensitive issues.
“We should use every day, in my opinion, to advance the cause. But the reality of the situation is, probably, that’s a very difficult thing, to get anything done,” he said.
Rep. Mark Sanford has a similar assessment.
“I don’t think that in an election year … there’s going to be immense amount of legislative change,” the South Carolina Republican said.
But Ryan’s leadership attributes won’t change because he’s retiring, Sanford added.
“Whatever good he could bring to bear, he would bring to bear as a lame duck or, you know, as somebody who would be sticking around,” he said.
Needs versus wants
Despite the midterm environment and Senate obstacle, Ryan insists he’ll spend the remainder of his term trying to enact the GOP’s agenda.
“When I say, ‘Run through the tape,’ I mean get everything done that needs to get done,” he said at his weekly press conference on April 12.
What “needs” to get done is an interesting choice of words.
There are only a handful of actual deadlines Congress has to meet this year, like a Sept. 30 cutoff for funding the government, reauthorizing the Federal Aviation Administration and passing the farm bill, which operates on a five-year cycle and expires this year.
Congress routinely passes an annual defense authorization bill, a process that will likely go on as usual. Lawmakers are also hoping to keep up their track record of biennial passage of the Water Resources Development Act, which authorizes water infrastructure projects such as ports and dams.
Ryan has said the FAA and WRDA bills are part of a piecemeal approach to infrastructure, one of the key policy items Republicans had on their 2018 agenda.
But those two bills, coupled with a total of $20 billion in additional infrastructure funding Congress approved for fiscal years 2018 and 2019, may be as far as that agenda item goes this year. A more ambitious plan to authorize new federal funding for traditional infrastructure like roads and bridges lacks a revenue source that can garner bipartisan support.
“I don’t think you’re going to see something the scale of the tax bill go through,” Sanford said. “That’s why infrastructure, I think, is going to be broken down into component parts.”
Republican leaders had dinner with President Donald Trump at the White House to discuss the GOP agenda on April 11, a few hours after Ryan announced he would not run for re-election. Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise attended.
“We’re working on infrastructure, we’re working on some health care bills, we’re working on lots of different bills with respect to workforce development, career and technical education,” Ryan said on “CBS This Morning” the next day regarding the agenda items the leaders discussed with the president.
He did not elaborate on what he meant by “some health care bills,” but it was most likely a reference to a package of bills related to opioid abuse prevention that the Energy and Commerce Committee has been examining.
Workforce development is the phrase Republicans have started using for what has become a whittled-down version of the welfare overhaul plan they outlined in their Better Way agenda that dates back to the 2016 campaign, and Ryan said he expects to make progress on those policies in the coming weeks.
In addition to work requirements for SNAP, the farm bill includes support for apprenticeships and skills training.
“This is going to help get more Americans out of poverty, and it’s going to help more Americans get into the workforce, while maintaining support for those in need,” Ryan said.
The House Ways and Means Committee is also looking at some workforce development policies it can move this year.
No barn cleaning
One thing Ryan is unlikely to do is any kind of “barn cleaning” legislation. The phrase is what former Speaker John A. Boehner used to describe a massive budget deal he helped broker on his way out the door.
Ryan struck an even bigger budget deal in terms of spending authorization earlier this year, even before announcing his retirement.
He alluded to that when asked whether he would do any barn cleaning on his way out, saying, “It’s been pretty cleared already.”
Rep. Jim Jordan, a leader of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus, said he doesn’t think Ryan in his final months would agree to another massive spending bill, like the $1.3 trillion omnibus package Congress passed last month.
“Any bill even remotely similar to what passed three weeks ago between now and Election Day, we’re in big trouble,” the Ohio Republican said. “We better not do something like that.”
Among those interested in such a move is Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer.
“With his newfound political freedom, I hope the Speaker uses his remaining time in Congress to break free from the hard-right factions of his caucus that have kept Congress from getting real things done. If he’s willing to reach across the aisle, he’ll find Democrats willing and eager to work with him,” the New York Democrat said in a statement released after the Ryan news broke.
Some members fear Ryan may be inclined to do some barn cleaning on immigration. A bipartisan deal to replace the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remains elusive because of disagreements over what legal status should look like for those young undocumented immigrants, and how much border security needs to be paired with it.
Ryan said he is not changing his position on DACA, and that any legislation should have a workable majority.
“We offered a good-faith offer to the Democrats, and I don’t want to bring legislation that won’t get signed into law,” he said.
“I just don’t think that that’s in anyone’s interest,” he added.
On the morning of April 11 when Ryan announced his retirement, he said he was proud of his efforts to push “the cause of entitlement reform” through budget resolutions he authored and the health care bill the House passed last year. He even vowed to keep up the push, saying, “I’m going to keep fighting for that.”
But the next morning in the interview with CBS, he acknowledged that push will not materialize into anything this year.
“I think I’ve done a lot to advance the debate on entitlement reform,” he said. “We have not yet won that debate. It’s got to be more bipartisan. And I regret that it isn’t.”
Some conservatives think Ryan should make the entitlement push anyway, even with the lack of bipartisan support.
“I think sometimes when you’re not worried about your political future, maybe you’re willing to be a little bit more honest about what you really believe in,” said Idaho GOP Rep. Raúl R. Labrador, who is also retiring and is running for governor.
If Ryan is committed to the policies he has fought for during the last 20 years, Labrador added, “Maybe this is his golden opportunity to make sure those things happen. … He could really go down in history if he did that.”
It’s unlikely, however, that Ryan would waste his remaining policy energy on something as sweeping and politically divisive as an entitlement overhaul knowing it doesn’t have a shot to become law. Rather, he’ll likely push smaller conservative bills that he hopes can garner some bipartisan support in the Senate.
“I don’t think there’s any desire by anyone to run up hills for the sake of running up hills,” Reed said. If there’s no chance of success, he said, “then all I can see us doing right now is breaking down and going into campaign mode.”