From the very beginning of his campaign for president, Donald Trump made it clear that he thought House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin was “weak and “feckless.” He even shot a silver bullet through Ryan’s heart when he called Ryan’s budget deal “stupid.”
Thus began the cold war between the billionaire bully and the reluctant Speaker who had enough trouble on his hands trying to tame the feral Freedom Caucus within his own party. But the attacks continued: Ryan denounced Trump over his comments on the KKK last March and Trump’s “star” tweet; Trump fired back four weeks ago, accusing Ryan of making a “sinister deal.”
As Trump recovered from the “pussy grabbing” tape and his numbers started to rise again, Ryan went full throttle, backing Trump and campaigning for him in the last weeks before the election. As it turned out, Trump saved Ryan’s job.
Ryan was the House Republicans’ unanimous choice this week for House Speaker, and even the unruly Freedom Caucus of nearly 40 arch conservatives who have repeatedly clashed with the speaker on policy and strategy were on board. Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, told Politico, “If Trump had not won, then the base would have demanded a scalp, and it probably would have been Paul’s.”
Ryan is now ebullient, declaring that there is unprecedented unity between the Republican- controlled Congress and the Republican president-elect and that the sky’s the limit on what the GOP can accomplish after years of political dysfunction under President Obama.
“Welcome to the dawn of a new unified Republican government,” Ryan told reporters at a news conference earlier this week. “This will be a government focused on turning President-elect Trump’s victory into real progress for the American people.”
Ryan’s future was in doubt throughout the general election campaign as he earned the enmity of many of his conservative House colleagues for his on-again, off-again support of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. Ryan’s tendency to promote his own policies for tax reform, health care, welfare reform and national security without fully consulting with rank and file members and other leaders also irked many. And any thought that Freedom Caucus members will merrily climb aboard the new Trump-GOP bandwagon and embrace the President-elect’s agenda wholeheartedly is ludicrous.
"The Freedom Caucus is definitely going to be pushing against the House Republican leadership whenever possible and will find ways to keep relevant, especially over spending issues on big ticket items,” Ron Bonjean, a Washington policy expert and former congressional Republican spokesperson, said in an email today. “They aren’t going anywhere and will make their voices heard soon. One-party rules means you can get a lot done, but there are a lot of headaches for the leadership moving it forward as well.”
This, after all, is the same group that eagerly supported a government shutdown in 2013 and hamstrung former Republican House Speaker John Boehner on an array of budget and other policy issues before driving him into an early retirement. Most Freedom Caucus members reluctantly agreed to support Ryan to succeed Boehner, in October 2015, but not before intense negotiations over changes in the way the House conducts business.
Despite lingering doubts, Freedom Caucus members re-upped on Tuesday to support Ryan’s second term as speaker during a closed-door session, although Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert admitted to reporters afterward that “I’ve got mixed emotions” because of Ryan’s “soft” stand on border security and his repeated insults of Trump.
Conservative displeasure with both Ryan and Trump came spewing out of a “Conversations with Conservatives” press conference on Wednesday. In a wide-ranging question and answer session with reporters, a handful of Freedom Caucus members voiced strong differences with Ryan and Trump on how to proceed.
As Dana Milbank of The Washington Post reported, the far right conservatives groused about many of the issues that will confront the new president and the Republican-controlled Congress. For instance:
- They support a significant increase in spending on highways, bridges and other infrastructure to stimulate the economy, as Trump has proposed. However, they are incensed that the proposed spending of as much as $1 trillion over the coming decade is not offset by corresponding cuts in other government programs. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) warned that unless Trump came up with a way to legitimately pay for the new infrastructure, “then a majority if not all of us will vote against it.”
- They are far from unanimous on whether to repeal Obamacare as early as January and then consider possible replacements for the federal health insurance program, or whether to preserve portions of the 2010 law. One of the lawmakers lamented that the GOP never got around to agreeing on a compromise replacement plan to have ready to go after repealing President Obama’s signature health insurance program.
Pressed by a reporter to explain how the Republicans would avoid a situation in which 20 million or more Americans would lose their coverage because of GOP action, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) quipped that people would be “way better off” if nothing were passed to replace Obamacare.
- They warned Trump and Ryan that they would balk if Congress attempted to increase fiscal 2017 spending during the lame-duck session of Congress before Trump takes office in mid-January. Jordan said that when it comes to budget cutting, “everything has to be on the table,” although Trump is on record opposing cuts in Social Security and Medicare.
- Some staunchly opposed efforts by some of Ryan’s GOP allies to protect him from procedural vehicles for removing him as speaker if the caucus began to sour on him. One of Ryan’s conditions for accepting the speakership in the first place was eliminating parliamentary provisions that would leave him vulnerable to a rebellion and ouster. Ryan and Freedom Caucus members intensely negotiated the issue but never reached an agreement.
There were other sharp inter-party divisions on display at the press conference, including whether Republicans should risk civil war with the Democrats by trying to abolish the filibuster on Supreme Court nominations in the Senate, or whether to resurrect “earmarks” in the appropriations process to give individual lawmakers the opportunity once again to steer pork-barrel spending to their congressional districts or states.
These and other issues will become grist for spirited debates in the coming months and could divide the GOP and trigger renewed gridlock.
When the dust settled from last week’s election, the Republicans held a solid 247 to 188 seat majority over the Democrats in the House, suggesting that Ryan and the GOP leadership could pretty much pass new legislation at will.
Yet the Republicans’ new 59-seat edge is more fragile than it may seem, because of glaring rifts among three factions: Ryan’s more mainstream, center-right wing of the party that is bent on major changes in the tax code and entitlements; the more populist Trump faction that favors infrastructure spending and dismantling of international trade agreements; and the Freedom Caucus, comprised of conservative ideologues, fiscal conservatives and political bomb-throwers.
The 40 or so loyal members of the Freedom Caucus have the power to stop almost any GOP-promoted proposal in its tracks, according to political experts.