For weeks, the hard-line conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus have said what they want most in Congress is a say in how the institution is run. Now, they have it – and they have until Friday to decide if they will support Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin for speaker.
Describing his reluctant willingness to lead the deeply fractured Republican conference, Ryan said in a closed-door meeting in the Capitol basement on Tuesday evening that he was insisting on the endorsement of three key groups: the (relatively) moderate Tuesday group, the mainstream conservative Republican Study Committee and the Freedom Caucus.
Only the Freedom Caucus poses a real challenge, and there were already signs of dissonance on Wednesday.
By making a series of demands of his own, Ryan is forcing the hard-line members into a position where they would be held responsible for derailing his candidacy for speaker
But for Ryan, the Republican nominee for vice president in 2012, there is a peril in pushing too hard against a group whose members have shown a willingness to shut down the government, or even default on federal debt obligations, to stand for their beliefs.
In the meeting on Tuesday evening, Ryan demanded a change that would deprive rebel lawmakers of their most powerful weapon: the ability to make a motion “to vacate the chair” and essentially kick the speaker out of the job.
“As part of those rules changes, he believes there needs to be a change to the process for a motion to vacate the chair,” a spokesman for Ryan wrote in a briefing paper for reporters. “No matter who is speaker, they cannot be successful with this weapon pointed at them all the time.”
Within minutes, however, Rep. Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho, an influential member of the Freedom Caucus, publicly declared that demand to be “a nonstarter.”
To win the endorsement of the Freedom Caucus, under the group’s bylaws, Ryan will need the backing of at least 80 percent of the group’s roughly 40 members.
Rep. Bill Flores of Texas, the chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said he would immediately request an endorsement of Ryan at the group’s regular Wednesday lunch. But leaders of the Freedom Caucus appeared to be in no rush to throw their support to him.
Officially, the group has already endorsed Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida, a little-known lawmaker who has promised to completely change the way the House does business, giving more power to committees and the rank-and-file. Webster has virtually no chance of winning the gavel, and it is not even clear he will be in Congress beyond this term. His district is due to be eliminated as a result of a lawsuit over redistricting in Florida.
Another declared candidate, Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah, has stepped aside and endorsed Ryan.
Speaker John Boehner has scheduled internal Republican leadership elections for next Wednesday, essentially giving Republicans some wiggle room if the factions do not accede to Ryan’s request that they decide whether to support him by Friday. The full House is to vote on a speaker the following Thursday. It takes 218 votes to win the post.
Even before formally announcing his willingness to serve, Ryan met earlier on Tuesday with leaders of the Freedom Caucus in his ornate office just steps from the House floor, a perk of his dream job as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.
In the meeting, leaders of the group, including Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, laid out their request for rules and procedural changes that would reduce the power of the speaker and the House leadership as a whole. Ryan made no commitments and the Freedom Caucus leaders emerged unpersuaded, participants said.
Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, who introduced a motion in July to oust Boehner, described it as “a very productive and cordial meeting” but said the group left still supporting Webster.
“Eighty percent of the Freedom Caucus can take any kind of position that it wants,” Meadows said just before Ryan’s announcement. “Certainly right now, it is still supporting Dan Webster because he has made the most compelling case.”
Meadows said that for Ryan to win the support of the Freedom Caucus, he would need to make “a compelling case on how we change the status quo and start doing business from the bottom up not the top down.” But in his remarks in the Capitol basement, lawmakers said Ryan focused more on what he was demanding from his colleagues than on specific changes he was willing to make in how the House operates.
The Freedom Caucus has prepared a long questionnaire for speaker candidates and several members of the group have said they expected any candidate – including Ryan – to address them. Ryan was to meet with the entire group later Wednesday.
Some of Ryan’s remarks on Tuesday evening were clearly a direct challenge to the faction of his party that undermined Boehner.
“Make no mistake: I believe that the ideas and principles of results-driven, common-sense conservatism are the keys to a better tomorrow – a tomorrow in which all of God’s children will be better off than they are today,” Ryan said at a news conference. He spoke of “the idea that the role of the federal government is not to facilitate dependency, but to create an environment of opportunity for everyone.”
”The idea that the government should do less,” he said, “and do it better.”
Recent weeks have been chaotic for the House. After Boehner announced his resignation under pressure from the Freedom Caucus, the majority leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, made a bid for the speakership. When he was forced to abandon the run, a leadership void was created, and many mainstream House Republicans said Ryan, 45, was the one person who could unify their ranks.
His announcement that he was willing to serve came as a relief to many of his colleagues, who wondered if anyone would be willing to step up and take the job under the current circumstances.
“There’s only one guy I think who can unite us,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who counts Ryan’s in-laws as constituents and has known the family for years. “There’s one guy with national stature. I think Paul Ryan is the best guy to put 218 votes-plus up on the board.”
Boehner, at a news conference on Wednesday morning, endorsed Ryan. But he noted that the decision was not up to him and acknowledged that it was still uncertain whether Ryan would be the Republicans’ nominee. “Listen I think Paul Ryan would make a great speaker, but this decision is up to the members,” he said. “I think last night went very well and hopefully by the end of the week, we'll have a nominee.”
Boehner is not the only leader on Capitol Hill who has been singing Ryan’s praises, and it is not clear all the praise would help. On Tuesday, Ryan got the unusual backing of the Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada – an endorsement that presumably does not go over well with members of the Freedom Caucus.
Ryan, who has three young children, has said he is unwilling to sacrifice his family time to serve in leadership. He was pressed on how much support he was demanding from the Republican conference.
“Would you want a unanimous vote?” a reporter asked.
Ryan would not go that far. “I laid it out today with our conference about all the various groups, having their endorsement and being that unifying candidate,” he said.