Hard-line conservatives cleared a path late Wednesday for Rep. Paul Ryan to become House speaker, heralding a possible end to weeks of Republican leadership turmoil.
The decision to support Ryan by the 40-member House Freedom Caucus, which has risen in power and stature since its founding earlier this year, came after the Ways and Means chair spent much of his day courting its support.
“A supermajority of the caucus has agreed to support Paul Ryan,” said Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho) after a lengthy evening meeting.
However, it was not immediately clear whether that support — which fell short of a formal endorsement — would meet the most challenging condition Ryan set out Tuesday for serving as speaker: unity among all of the House Republican Conference’s warring factions.
Ryan could still decide not to serve as speaker, and some conservative activists have engaged in a vigorous campaign to cast doubt on Ryan, which might give some members cold feet before votes are cast next week.
But the support represents the first thaw in the increasingly frosty relationship between tea party conservatives and establishment Republicans. It also paves the way for fresh GOP leadership heading into imminent debates over the national debt and federal spending.
The Freedom Caucus met with Ryan for an hour in the Capitol earlier in the day. Many of its members had balked at the conditions Ryan attached to his decision to serve as speaker, and the meeting represented their first chance to question him directly on his intentions.
The meeting broke up without resolution setting up a high-stakes decision for a group that played a key role in easing the current speaker, John A. Boehner, into retirement and blocking Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s bid to succeed him.
The group reconvened Wednesday evening to debate whether to abandon their previous endorsement of Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) in order to back Ryan, who said Tuesday that a Freedom Caucus endorsement is a prerequisite for him to agree to serve as speaker.
“We need to decide whether Paul Ryan is the kind of guy who is going to change this place,” Labrador said before the evening meeting.
Ryan’s declaration that he would serve as House speaker if and only if he receives formal backing from major House GOP factions — including the Freedom Caucus — effectively gives the group veto power over his ascent. It also exposes fissures in the typically close-knit group.
Some, citing Ryan’s demand to jettison the House rule allowing a simple majority to oust a speaker at virtually any time, said it would be nearly impossible for him to earn their support. Others argued that Ryan could be the type of transformative leader that House Republicans need.
Leaving the Wednesday evening session, Rep. Marlin A. Stutzman (R-Ind.) said some caucus members are inclined to back Ryan but the matter was far from settled. Under the group’s rules, an endorsement requires the support of 80 percent of its members.
“I think Paul Ryan is completely capable and is willing to make some of the changes that we need,” Stutzman said Wednesday. “Are we there tonight yet? No, we’ve got a little way to go. But I’m willing to start those conversations because I trust Paul. He’s earned my trust. I’m willing to keep talking.”
Whether Ryan would meet the 80 percent threshold, he added, is the “big question.”
Ryan appeared to calm some nerves in the afternoon meeting, making clear that he did not want to end the ability of the House membership to remove the speaker — only raise the threshold for doing so. He also gave reassurances that he would respect the “Hastert Rule” — the informal practice of former speaker J. Dennis Hastert that required the majority support of the Republican conference before moving legislation to the House floor.
Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) said Ryan agreed that legislation should be moved only with the support of the majority of the majority. In particular, he said, that calmed immigration hawks wary of Ryan’s past support for measures that would offer illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
But Ryan faces a big challenge in getting the group’s support, Brooks said: “Paul Ryan probably made some progress . . . but to get 80 percent of Freedom Caucus to switch from Daniel Webster?” he said. “It’s going to be difficult for Paul Ryan to shift that in two, three days.”
Ryan said little upon departing the afternoon meeting, calling the gathering an “exchange of ideas on how to make Congress work better.”
Earlier in the day, Boehner told members that Republicans will vote internally to nominate a speaker next Wednesday, with a floor vote to follow Thursday. The announcement was made after Ryan said Tuesday night that he would run for speaker only if his terms were met.
“This is not a job I’ve ever wanted, I’ve ever sought,” Ryan said. “I came to the conclusion that this is a very dire moment, not just for Congress, not just for the Republican Party, but for our country.”
Those demands include not only the endorsements and the rule changes, but also giving Ryan time with his young family.
“This is a lot to digest,” Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.) said of the demands late Tuesday. But after leaving the Wednesday afternoon meeting, Schweikert said he was “very optimistic” that Ryan would back the sort of procedural changes that the Freedom Caucus has advocated.
Another sticking point for Freedom Caucus members is their endorsement of Webster, which was made earlier this month and played a role in ending McCarthy’s bid for the speakership.
Webster’s focus on procedural reforms, honed during his years as speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, has won him an avid following among hard-liners who feel marginalized by the GOP’s establishment.
“You’ve got a bunch of alpha people in here,” said Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), a Webster supporter. “You don’t need another alpha leader.”
Webster made clear Wednesday he would not stand aside for Ryan: “People are responding to what I’m saying. They’re sick of how this place is run, of the dog and pony shows on committees. They want a return to bills from members being considered, rather than approving the leadership’s bills.”
Ryan also met Wednesday with the Republican Study Committee, which counts more than two-thirds of the Republican conference as members. At the meeting, a committee spokesperson said, members were surveyed by secret ballot on whether to endorse Ryan.
The tally, which will not be released publicly, will be referred to the RSC’s steering committee. It will decide Thursday whether to grant an endorsement.
Karoun Demirjian, Kelsey Snell and David Weigel contributed to this report which was published originally in The Washington Post.
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