Conservative activists are turning up the heat on Republicans in the House of Representatives, pressing the members of the party’s right wing to oppose the candidacy of Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan for speaker of the House. And really, that’s probably just fine with Paul Ryan.
The current chairman of the Ways and Means Committee and the GOP’s most recent nominee for vice president, Ryan was thrust into the race to replace current speaker John Boehner after House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy unexpectedly bowed out. Ryan had repeatedly said he did not want the thankless job, but under unrelenting pressure from party leaders, including his old running mate Mitt Romney, he finally agreed to run if a number of conditions were met.
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In a meeting Tuesday night with the Republican conference, he said that he would only run if three separate caucuses within the party, representing the entire ideological spectrum, endorsed him and agreed not to undermine him as speaker.
The key player here is the House Freedom Caucus, a group of about 40 hard-right conservatives whose opposition helped convince Boehner to announce his retirement and then pressed McCarthy to withdraw his candidacy.
Ryan has basically made it a condition of his candidacy that the Freedom Caucus will not do to him what it did to John Boehner by making any sort of compromise virtually impossible. That’s a bit of a sticking point because the Freedom Caucus basically wants the rules of the House rewritten in a way that would make it easier for them to railroad a speaker if they want to.
The Wisconsin Republican could not have handled the situation more deftly. Ryan seemed to be facing an impossible dilemma. By becoming speaker of the House, he would have to forsake not only his “dream job” as chair of the Ways and Means Committee but also his presidential ambitions, because the kind of compromises a House speaker has to make to get things done are easily turned into attack ads in a presidential primary. But by refusing, he left himself open to charges that when his party called, he wouldn’t answer – not something a presidential candidate wants hanging over his head.
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Ryan, however, has cleverly turned the tables. By laying out the conditions under which he would be willing to serve as speaker – some of which conservatives in the House have already said are “non-starters” – he has essentially forced the hard right of the party to reject him. It’s not hard to imagine that in his ideal world, Ryan gets to stay at Ways and Means and the House Freedom Caucus takes the blame for any chaos that follows a hurried search for another speaker.
As of Wednesday morning, conservative interest groups continued to press Republican members of Congress to reject Ryan’s candidacy.
Larry Ward of the Constitutional Rights PAC pulled together an ad hoc coalition of activists groups when McCarthy was running for speaker under the banner, “Fire Kevin McCarthy.” He has retooled the group’s website and it’s now a “Fire Paul Ryan” effort.
“We were kind of hoping that he wouldn’t jump in,” Ward said Wednesday morning. “But the decision [to oppose Ryan] was real simple when he came out and made his demands.”
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Ward said there had been some hope that Ryan might propose new rules decentralizing power in the House – one of the core demands of the Freedom Caucus.
“But instead, he comes out and throws his gauntlet down, says ‘Follow me, be obedient or I’m not running’,” Ward said. “What we don’t need is a more capable John Boehner.”
Jenny Beth Martin, the president and co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots movement, went after Ryan in a lengthy op-ed in Politico on Monday. “Ryan is a nice man, but he does not reflect the conservative base of the modern GOP. Long before there was a Tea Party movement, Ryan opposed a Balanced Budget Amendment, which would have forced Congress to keep its spending in check. He voted for No Child Left Behind, the disastrous take-over of America’s education policy by D.C. bureaucrats. And he voted to create the prescription drug coverage program known as Medicare Part D—the largest expansion of the federal government since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
“As for the specific legislative fights that led to the birth of the Tea Party movement? He was on the wrong side, right from the start: He voted for TARP, the AIG bailout and the GM bailout. More recently, he was John Boehner’s handpicked salesman for “comprehensive immigration reform” (read: amnesty for illegal immigrants) to the House GOP Conference—a job he did so well that Democrat Luis Gutierrez, the top amnesty supporter in the House, has endorsed Ryan for speaker.”
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For good measure, Tea Party Patriots also tweeted out a cartoon drawing of Ryan depicted as a rhinoceros – a reference to his status as a “RINO” (Republican in Name Only) among many in the conservative movement.
For Ryan, the opposition from the hard right may come as a gift. It’s likely that the general public – and even the majority of the Republican Party – won’t see demands that amount to “promise not to stab me in the back” as particularly unreasonable. If they refuse him, he gets to go back to the Ways and Means Committee and bide his time, while able to claim that he was willing to serve but the party passed him by.
And speaking of gifts, House Speaker John Boehner handed Ryan another one on Wednesday morning: his endorsement.
“I think Paul Ryan would make a great speaker,” Boehner said in a press conference, though he added that it is ultimately up to the members of the House. “I think Paul is going to get the support he’s looking for.”
Given the hard right’s antipathy toward Boehner, the endorsement might have the effect of hardening their opposition to Ryan. And that’s probably just fine with Ryan, too.