Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s leadership capabilities are back in the spotlight after September’s fiscal crises were quickly resolved last week without any wins for conservative policies. But that deal is unlikely to define his speakership the way upcoming legislative battles on taxes and immigration will.
Whether the 10-term Wisconsin Republican remains speaker — either by his or the House GOP’s choosing — may depend on his ability to deliver legislation in those areas that can both appease his largely conservative conference and get through the more moderate Senate to President Donald Trump’s desk.
Ryan did not like the deal Trump cut with Democrats to extend the debt ceiling for three months and attach that to a hurricane relief measure, along with a three-month continuing resolution. He preferred a longer-term debt ceiling extension and felt Democrats were increasing their leverage in inevitable year-end negotiations.
But the speaker had been prepared to back a “clean” debt limit increase, free of policy riders related to curbing spending that a majority of his conference had been seeking.
That position certainly hasn’t curried Ryan favor with conservatives. They are urging Republican leaders to come up with a better plan to address the debt ceiling before the new Dec. 8 deadline though they understand the GOP’s leverage is diminished.
But Congress is getting ready for legislative debates on taxes and immigration where Republicans hold more power.
They’re using the budget reconciliation process to overhaul the tax code, which would allow them to get a bill through the Senate without Democratic support. On immigration, Trump’s decision to phase out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which protected undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, puts the pressure on Congress to compromise but the president ultimately holds the power of the pen — and has said he’ll fix the issue on his own if Congress fails.
Tax overhaul dream
Rewriting the tax code is a longtime Ryan goal, and the former House Ways and Means chairman along with current GOP tax writers are buoyed by Trump’s enthusiasm for tax cuts.
Ryan has raised the stakes by frequently stating that Congress “must” simplify the tax code and that failure is not an option. His sense of urgency underscores the political dynamics.
Trump criticizes Congress and its leaders at will over legislative failures, attacking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell repeatedly in August for the chamber’s failure to advance legislation partially repealing the 2010 health care law.
Ryan could be Trump’s next target if the tax effort fails. And if the president attacks him, it will be easier for congressional Republicans — some of whom already privately question his leadership — to follow suit, making his tenure as speaker untenable.
Under such pressure, Ryan could resign like his predecessor, John A. Boehner. It’s hard to see why he would want to remain in Congress if his tax overhaul dream is dashed.
Immigration is another big test for Ryan, but for different reasons.
As a rank-and-file lawmaker, Ryan had a mixed voting record on immigration. He generally supported efforts to overhaul the system to provide undocumented immigrants an opportunity to obtain legal status. He was one of the most prominent House members working to advance an overhaul in 2013.
When Ryan ran for speaker, this position worried hard-line conservatives, who fretted he might use the post to push a measure they have likened to unearned amnesty.
Ryan promised conservatives he wouldn’t bring any immigration measure to the floor unless it had the support from a majority of the Republican conference.
Despite that pledge, conservatives remain concerned Ryan will buck the conference and get behind an overhaul.
“I’ve never stopped worrying about that,” said Texas GOP Rep. Louie Gohmert, a Freedom Caucus member and immigration hard-liner.
‘A lot to lose′
Those concerns are back in focus with Congress facing a six-month time frame to find a legislative solution to replace the DACA program.
“He’s got a lot to lose on that that. But he’s got a lot to gain,” Freedom Caucus member Paul Gosar of Arizona said. “The thing about it is good process is great politics. That’s key here.”
The problem, Gosar said, is that House leadership has not helped foster good processes for developing legislation. He blamed part of that on the fact that they seem to be too concerned about what the Senate is doing.
“I’m sick and tired of the Senate,” he said. “It’s time the House grew a set, put their own thing on the table, make the Senate put their thing on the table and make them come to the table.”
Gosar declined to say whether he supports Ryan but he said the speaker is “very unpopular” in his district and that his constituents like to envision a scenario where Trump is president but Ryan is no longer speaker.
“That’s kind of been the mantra in my district,” he said.
Majority of the majority
Ryan seems to understand Trump’s popularity in safe Republican districts, especially when it comes to immigration.
When asked last week if he still maintained his pledge to not bring an immigration bill to the floor unless it is supported by a majority of Republicans, Ryan said, “We will not be advancing legislation that does not have the support of President Trump. … And if we have legislation coming through here that is worked with and supported by the president, I’m very confident that our members will support that.”
That comment, however, came just hours before Trump backed the Democrats on the debt ceiling, against Ryan and other Republican leaders’ urging. According to the Democrats’ readout of that White House meeting, Trump is also willing to support legislation that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who would have been covered by DACA as part of a broader immigration measure.
“We’re going to do everything to make sure that the speaker stays with the president’s agenda, which is the agenda that the president ran on and that the American people supported,” Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Scott Perry said.
Of the phrase “ran on,” the Freedom Caucus board member added: “It’s important to say it that way.”
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said he doesn’t see Ryan going back on his word that a majority of Republicans have to support any immigration bill.
“Suggesting that just because the president is behind it, is an edict that the majority of the GOP conference would be behind it, does not necessarily translate to DACA,” the North Carolina Republican told Roll Call. “Because we know the president is for a border wall, too. If there’s some way to secure the border and then work on DACA as an outflow of that, I think it will get more acceptance.”
‘Everybody questions the leadership’
Despite reservations over what’s to come on immigration, conservatives aren’t threatening Ryan over that issue or any others. Meadows, Perry and former Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan met with Ryan last week but disputed press reports that said they challenged his position and have been privately discussing possible speaker replacements.
The meeting was about the debt ceiling deal and what GOP options were, as well as the direction the conference is headed on other items, Perry said.
“Look, everybody questions the leadership no matter what kind of organization you’re in,” he said.” And it’s easy to Monday-morning-quarterback things. Would I do things different? I imagine I would, but I’m not the speaker. … But I think it’s important I voice my concerns and make them known, and I do that.”
Jordan said Freedom Caucus members have called attention to leadership’s lack of preparation and are urging them to avoid the pitfalls that led to the debt ceiling deal, but it’s nothing personal against Ryan.
“When you fail to prepare, you typically don’t get the best outcome,” the Ohio Republican said. “And you don’t have the best choices at decision-making time. And that’s what exactly played out.”
Republicans’ frustration about the legislative process extends beyond the Freedom Caucus, but if a movement to oust Ryan as speaker were to occur, it would likely originate there.
Some more moderate members of the conference believe the Freedom Caucus won’t be able to push Ryan out like they did with former Speaker John A. Boehner.
“They wouldn’t get anywhere if they did, anyway,” New York Rep. Peter T. King said. “Again, you’re talking about a minority, which hopefully is going to be isolated more and more.”