Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) was recently elected to be the youngest Speaker of the House in 150 years. Although young, he has had significant leadership experience, including chairing the powerful Budget and Ways and Means Committees. He is well-liked across the Republican Caucus, but faces challenges in uniting the Caucus to advance a legislative agenda. While he has long sought an opportunity to overhaul both entitlements and the tax system, he will need a consensus among his Republican colleagues on how to do so in order to move forward. He will also have to contend with presidential politics; Congress will act conservatively until the November elections and avoid controversial legislation that could jeopardize either party’s chances at winning the White House.
Speaker Ryan has been tasked with leading a historically divisive Congress in a Presidential election cycle. This challenge is so great that few even sought the gavel and Mr. Ryan did so with reluctance. That said, Speaker Ryan began his Speakership on the right track. He has agreed to give rank and file Members more say, including a pledge to obey the ‘Hastert rule,’ only bringing to the floor legislation supported by a majority of Republicans. He also has said that the legislative process should return to the Committees. These plans have led to initial praise from colleagues who had criticized Boehner’s top down style. However, they also handicap Speaker Ryan by removing the very tools that productive Speakers have used to move forward on a legislative agenda. In addition, Mr. Ryan finds himself in the odd position of courting the right-wing Freedom Caucus while trying to maintain his seat in a moderate Midwestern District.
Helping him get off on the right foot, Boehner negotiated a budget deal and debt-limit increase with Democrats before handing over the gavel. Then, presumably reacting to criticism from the right that Mr. Ryan is not conservative enough, Mr. Ryan publicly announced that he would not work with the President on immigration, saying the President had proven he could not be trusted in this area. For now, even the Freedom Caucus is optimistic about what the House can do under Speaker Ryan.
However, they once felt the same way about Boehner, and Mr. Ryan, in many ways is more of a policy wonk than a politician, could end up getting mired in the details of determining a policy vision for the Caucus. In one appearance on Fox News Sunday, Mr. Ryan explained the importance of putting forward a bold policy vision to show Americans that the Republican Party can lead effectively. “We’ve been too timid for too long and the key is to offer the country a bold alternative and a very bold agenda for how we can solve this country’s problems. That is how we unify.” Mr. Ryan consistently emphasizes his goal to transform the GOP party into a proposition party who can put forward concrete initiatives to improve the country.
This focus on bold policy initiatives presents two separate challenges for Speaker Ryan. First, he will have to see if Republicans in the House can unify not just behind broad messaging but also behind specific policy provisions. Second, he must find a way to work with the more moderate Senate if anything the House passes is to have a chance of becoming law. The reality is that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell cannot pass legislation out of the Senate without attending to the concerns of at least some Moderates.
There is some indication that Mr. Ryan may have trouble bridging the conservative divide. Earlier in February, the Speaker met with the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus to convince its members to support the 2017 spending bill. There was, however, significant push-back from members who think Mr. Ryan should fight for a budget that more significantly brings the deficit under control. Freedom Caucus members haven’t accepted the argument that the GOP is out of options while Obama is still in the White House, which is what Mr. Ryan has been saying to temper expectations.
Shortly thereafter, Mr. Ryan spoke at the Heritage Action Policy Summit with a message to unite the GOP ahead of the 2016 elections, saying that Republicans needed to “unite the clans.” He talked about the need to avoid being sidetracked by President Obama’s attempt to distract the GOP from its legislative and policy agenda with hot-button issues like gun control. However some at Heritage responded with skepticism, saying they could not simply ignore the President for the next 11 months but needed to move ahead with shaping a conservative policy agenda.
Signaling his understanding that he will need to work with the President to move any legislative priorities, Mr. Ryan and President Obama met for a private lunch the same day as his Freedom Caucus meeting. They discussed common goals such as addressing the financial crisis in Puerto Rico, criminal justice reform, and fighting the growing heroin epidemic. This was their first official meeting since Ryan became Speaker last year. However their relationship will likely remain cordial but frosty. Mr. Ryan will have to toe the line between advancing legislative priorities with the White House and Democrats’ help and showing that he can stand up to the President. Getting too cozy with President Obama would likely be looked down on as a betrayal by the conservative wing of the GOP. In order to be effective as a Speaker and not fall into the same trap as John Boehner, Mr. Ryan will have to delicately manage his relationships with moderate and conservative Republicans while using discretion when he reaches across the aisle.