Paul D. Ryan’s first as year as House speaker played out like a roller coaster. But despite the rocky ride, the Wisconsin Republican reaches his one-year anniversary Oct. 29 earning relatively high marks from many in his caucus.
Praised for bringing a more inclusive leadership style to the fractious House GOP conference, Ryan, 46, is widely expected to seek another term as speaker during the upcoming lame-duck session, despite talk of opposition from more conservative lawmakers and grousing from some of the Republican faithful about his contortions over Donald Trump’s presidential bid.
“From my perspective, Paul has done the best job anyone can do,” New York Republican Rep. Peter T. King, said in an interview. “He is consistent. He listens to people and he tries to forge the best deal he can, considering we are a minority party in Washington with a majority in the House, but Democrats have veto power in the Senate and the president is a Democrat.”
Oklahoma GOP Rep. Tom Cole said Ryan had “an exceptionally successful year,” especially considering that he never wanted to be speaker. Highlights included strong Republican votes on last year’s omnibus spending bill and this year’s continuing resolution to keep the government running through Dec. 9, Cole said, noting that so far Ryan has been able to avoid the pitfalls that overtook former Speaker John A. Boehner.
While King and Cole are more moderate members of the conference, even the conservative members of the House Freedom Caucus, who have given Ryan the most trouble, have not been especially critical of the speaker. Many praise him for trying to get their input and listen to their ideas.
Talk of conservative forces ousting Ryan from the speakership in the 115th Congress appears, at this point, to be little more than that.
No candidate has yet emerged to challenge Ryan in a conference vote, and even if an opposition movement emerged that kept him from getting the necessary 218 votes on the floor, it doesn’t appear that any alternative candidate would be capable of doing so.
“I think there is always going to be a disaffected faction, but there is no one who comes remotely close other than Ryan to getting 218 votes on the House floor,” said Michael Steel, a former Boehner aide, now with Hamilton Place Strategies.
When Ryan was elected speaker last year, after initially declining to run, he promised a more inclusive approach. Members across the spectrum say he has delivered.
“People feel like they’re listened to that they have an opportunity to have direct input,” Cole said. “His special conferences are basically strategy conferences where he lays out the alternatives to members and listens to them … before we move ahead.”
Ryan also has made an effort to get to know the members, hosting regular dinners with six to eight members randomly drawn from throughout the conference, Cole said.
When members approach Ryan on the floor to talk about an issue in their district, he seems to know what they’re talking about, King said.
King recalled calling Ryan over Thanksgiving weekend last year to discuss legislation he championed to reauthorize a health care program for 9/11 first responders. Ryan called him back two hours later from his car phone on his way back from hunting and committed to getting the bill passed before the end of the year.
“There was a lot of opposition to it in the Republican Party,” King said, but Ryan kept his word and steered it through. The bill was passed as part of the omnibus spending package.
Despite his responsiveness, Ryan’s year has been far from perfect. House Republicans, riven by infighting over government spending, couldn’t pass a budget this year and brought just half of the 12 annual appropriations bills to the floor. GOP members waffled over such controversies as banning people on the terrorist watch list from buying guns and impeaching IRS Commissioner John Koskinen over the agency’s alleged targeting of conservative groups seeking nonprofit status.
The consensus, at least from sympathetic lawmakers and observers, is that Ryan did the best he could, with the cards he’d been dealt.
Former Republican Rep. Tom Davis said: “He steered the boat down the river in the rapids, and he has not washed ashore. He has not overturned it, but there are still rapids ahead.”
Most of the criticism of Ryan has come from outside of the Republican conference. Some conservative pundits, particularly those at Breitbart News, have attacked the speaker fairly frequently.
Ryan, a potential 2020 Republican presidential nominee, has angered this year’s standard-bearer Trump and some of his supporters by refusing to defend or campaign with him. Trump has publicly attacked Ryan on Twitter and on television, calling him “weak and ineffective.”
The Trump factor
Trump’s candidacy forced Ryan to try to balance competing views about the real estate mogul within the party, at the same time that he was managing divisions within his caucus and pushing incremental, policy-based change. In the process, he managed to alienate some in the GOP base, as well as swing voters.
Ryan initially withheld his endorsement of Trump for a month, then threw his backing behind the billionaire while continuing to disavow some of his controversial statements. It was only after the release of a 2005 recording of Trump talking about kissing and groping women without their consent that Ryan told his members he could no longer defend the GOP nominee.
King said that Ryan could have handled that situation better by articulating his intention to focus on House Republicans’ races instead of Trump. The reaction Ryan’s comments stirred wasn’t helpful, he said, adding, “It’s probably hurt Paul somewhat with the grass roots.”
Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Ryan’s wavering has put him in a difficult position. But Burden predicted that elected Republicans won’t be especially hostile about it since many themselves have similarly oscillated over Trump.
“You’ve got members who are ‘Never Trump,’ members who are pro-Trump, and in the middle, the vast majority dealing with the same conflicts,” Steel said, meaning they oppose Democrat Hillary Clinton for president but recognize Trump isn’t really a conservative and is “at times, extremely distasteful and scary.”
Election report card
While Ryan has drawn far more praise than criticism as speaker, he still faces some major hurdles.
“His report card will come on Nov. 8 to see how they do in the House races,” Davis said.
Ryan began working on the campaign aspect of his job early, by pushing for the conference to develop its own policy agenda and not wait for the presidential primaries to play out. It was a strategy that proved particularly useful once Trump emerged as the nominee.
“The Better Way agenda project has been extremely helpful in getting Republicans who may be uncomfortable with Donald Trump’s lack of policy and specifics something to run on,” Steel said.
Ryan has also surpassed fundraising expectations and been vigilant in campaigning for House Republicans from all corners of the conference, Cole said.
“If you need help, he’s been there to do it,” he said.
Another hurdle is the post-election lame-duck session, which conservatives have said will be crucial in shaping their overall view of Ryan.
“In general, I’m going to give him an incomplete right now,” said Adam Brandon, CEO of the tea party-affiliated FreedomWorks. “A lot of what has happened in the past year has been so dominated by presidential politics, it’s hard to make a full judgment.”
Brandon said he wants to make sure Ryan does not let legislation like the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement or a bill to require states to collect sales taxes on internet purchases get passed. And any year-end appropriations package should be presented to members early in the session, he said.
“If it’s a cram-down right before it passes, ‘You got to vote for it’ — that’s more of the same,” Brandon said.
Ryan already has a few strikes against him — a major one being his refusal to put Freedom Caucus member Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas back on the Agriculture Committee, Brandon said. Huelskamp, who lost his primary this year, was removed by Boehner from the panel in 2012 after his frequent criticism of the former speaker.
“If [Ryan] had done that, Huelskamp would have been re-elected,” he said. “That would have been a major olive branch reach-out to conservatives.”
Indeed, in the few times where Freedom Caucus members have publicly criticized Ryan, it was primarily for such inaction.
Brandon also said the failure to pass a budget and all 12 appropriations bills reflect poorly on Ryan, who had promised a return to regular order. “That’s the job; that’s what you’re supposed to do,” he said.
Most predict Ryan will be re-elected if he runs for a full term as speaker, but he could still face opposition.
“This is a tense election, and it’s a highly charged time, but I haven’t heard of anybody who’s thinking of running against him,” Cole said. “With all respect to the outside groups, it’s not enough to be against somebody. You need to be for somebody.”
The House Republican Conference typically holds leadership elections the first week of the lame-duck session and is expected to do so again this year, despite a push from Freedom Caucus members and conservative groups like FreedomWorks to delay them until after Congress has completed its legislative business for the year.
“Why don’t you let people have time to digest the election?” Brandon said.
Brandon said he is not going after Ryan by pushing for a delay but asserted that he does not believe that Ryan is the only member who could win the speakership.
A Freedom Caucus source said earlier this week that rumors of Ryan’s demise are greatly exaggerated and that there have been no strategic meetings about forcing him out.
Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio and member Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho didn’t respond to interview requests for this story. The office of caucus member Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina said he wouldn’t discuss the matter before the election.
One thing Brandon does not expect to be much of a factor is Ryan’s back-and-forth on supporting Trump.
“I’m sure that plays into some of the politics, but after the election, if Donald is not elected president, that’s spilled milk,” he said.
Davis said that while it’s hard to see who would want to run against Ryan, the real question becomes how far the dissident members will go to either prove their point or exert leverage, tactics Ryan would be unlikely to accommodate.
“This guy is not going to sacrifice his integrity, his reputation and his brand,” Davis said.
Any members who are talking about withholding support for Ryan if he emerges as the conference’s nominee for speaker are “trying to blackmail the party,” King said. “And that’s wrong.”
But if there’s one thing Ryan has proven over the past year, it’s that he can weather the storm.
“The speaker of the House is going to have a lot of spears in his back and needs to have really tough skin,” Steel said. “And Ryan does.”