Rep. Steve King braced for bad news when House Speaker Paul Ryan called on a Sunday afternoon in early 2016.
The Iowa Republican, one of the biggest immigration hawks in the House, had added a provision to a trade bill that Ryan had passed out of the Ways and Means Committee that would have prevented any trade agreements from changing immigration or visa policies.
Since the bill had advanced, Ryan had been drafted out of the committee chairmanship to replace Speaker John Boehner. As Ryan spoke with King from Ryan's home district in Wisconsin, discussing the limits of the ability of a committee chairman to keep his promises, King feared that he was preparing him for the letdown that his immigration language was going to be stripped from the bill.
Suddenly, though, Ryan switched tone. As speaker of the House, he said, he’s finding that he has the power to keep commitments that he might not have as committee chairman. He was calling to deliver King the good news that his language was staying in the final version of the bill, which President Obama then signed.
“When the speaker has given his word to me, he’s kept it,” said King, who usually is on the other side of GOP immigration disputes from Ryan.
Throughout his two-plus years as speaker, Ryan has been able to maintain a tenuous peace within the House Republican conference, a group of politicians with wildly divergent views and styles that proved unmanageable for Boehner and that might have been unable to settle on a leader if Ryan hadn’t been drafted in 2015.
For that measure of success, House Republicans, outside conservatives, and lobbyists credit Ryan’s efforts to include the rank-and-file in the legislative process, and to provide transparency about the leadership’s goals and strategy. They also prize his ability to debate and educate individuals about detailed policy initiatives, a skill honed in his days on the Budget Committee.
With those tools, Ryan has managed to pass major controversial legislation, such as the tax bill, the latest budget extension to avert a government shutdown, and a rewrite of Obamacare, even under tremendous pressure from right and left enraged and energized by the Trump-GOP partnership. In several cases, the Senate was unable to do the same.
In coming weeks, Ryan’s speakership will have to navigate some of the same obstacles that felled Boehner, such as legislation on immigration and spending.
Most House Republicans view Ryan as a uniting force, and some fear, amid rumors that he may not run again, that no one else could fill his shoes so successfully.
In Boehner's wake
It was Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Mich., who broke the news in September 2015 that Boehner was resigning, tweeting from within the private GOP meeting in which Boehner made the announcement.
Speaker Boehner just announced in Conference that he will resign as Speaker and from Congress at the end of October.— Rep. Bill Huizenga (@RepHuizenga) September 25, 2015
In the weeks that followed, as Republicans struggled to find a replacement who could pacify their factions, Huizenga was Ryan’s top booster. He called on social media for drafting the reluctant Ryan into seeking the top job, thinking that only his selection could placate both conservatives and centrists. He still thinks the same way.
“Whether it's Freedom Caucus or Tuesday Group, he is still, I believe, the only guy, man or woman, the only member who is able to go in and to understand and work with each of those factions without them feeling like a) they've just been sold a bill of goods, and b) that they won't be able to follow through on the commitments he makes,” Huizenga said. The Freedom Caucus is a group of several dozen staunch conservatives willing to vote against leadership priorities, and the Tuesday Group is the caucus of centrists.
Huizenga allowed that maybe someone other than Ryan could step up because all representatives are “cogs in the machine of the great representative republic we have.” But Ryan commands the most respect among all the different factions.
The Freedom Caucus still has its differences with GOP leadership in the age of Ryan.
“There’s still a lot of people that don’t feel like they’re included in the decision-making process, and that’s beyond the Freedom Caucus,” said Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, the caucus chairman.
“Having real input on the decisions, not just on putting people in a room so that they can claim they took part of the decision-making process when they weren’t, is critical.”
Other key factions in the House GOP feel more included.
“I don’t know that we’re always comfortable where we’re going to wind up, but we’re comfortable with the fact that he’s been transparent, he’s been open, he’s been participative,” said Texas’s Bill Flores, who during the last Congress chaired the Republican Study Committee, a large caucus of conservatives.
Charlie Dent, the Pennsylvania representative who co-chairs the Tuesday Group, was among those Republicans who doubted anyone else within the conference could unify them as Ryan does. The speaker is fair, Dent said, even though he faces constant pressure from his flanks. “He gets heavily pressured by some elements within the conference who shall not be named, but are more apt to shoot the hostage,” he said.
His leadership style
Several of Ryan’s GOP colleagues mentioned his diligence.
In 2012, Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace surprised Ryan at the end of an interview by noting that it was Ryan’s birthday, and then had a producer step out of the wings to present Ryan with an oversized birthday cake, complete with a dollar sign as decoration. Wallace then pressured Ryan live on-air to cut into it. Ryan wouldn’t play along. “I don’t eat sweets,” he said.
Huizenga mentioned the Fox stunt, which raised eyebrows among media critics at the time, as an example of Ryan’s self-discipline. Ryan claims he hasn’t eaten sweets in years since giving them up one Lent, and that he prefers grilled asparagus to a Snickers. He’s also known as a fitness enthusiast, a dedicated leader of P90x classes, and a practitioner of yoga.
Republicans said they see the same discipline in Ryan’s management of the conference.
“He’s very intentional, he thinks through [things] very carefully, he tries to get a lot [of] input from people, and when he comes to a landing on something that he really needs to come to a landing on — you know, we can't do everything by consensus in the House — then he explains himself, I think, clearly,” said New Jersey Rep. Tom MacArthur. “Over and over and over again.”
MacArthur, a former chairman of the Tuesday Group, allied with Ryan on both the tax bill and the Obamacare replacement bill that cleared the House, garnering centrist votes for both measures.
Blue-state members such as MacArthur initially recoiled at the tax bill, because it would have eliminated the state and local tax deduction, which is valuable in their high-tax states.
“We really banged heads for a while,” MacArthur said.
Eventually, MacArthur and other blue-state representatives worked out a compromise with House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, and Ryan, to allow taxpayers up to $10,000 in state and local tax deductions.
“To his credit, [Ryan] listened, he got a lot of people involved, and obviously, we reached a compromise that enough of us thought was a good enough deal that we voted for it,” he said.
Part of Ryan’s management strategy is to maintain constant contact with Republicans.
When representatives fly back into D.C. each week, usually on Mondays, Ryan hosts a dinner with seven or eight Republican members. Each week, he also hosts a lunch with representatives of the conference’s several factions, including the Tuesday Group, the Republican Study Committee, and the Freedom Caucus. A number of representatives said he is accessible.
“I think that Ryan’s style stands out for the way that he is as egalitarian as one can be in that particular posting,” said Mark Sanford, R-S.C., a staunch fiscal conservative.
Sanford has served in the House during the speakerships of Newt Gingrich, Dennis Hastert, Boehner and Ryan. In comparison to those leaders, Ryan’s style is less top-down, he suggested, allowing the factions to live together despite the “immense gulf” in ideology.
Ryan’s approach is to level with members about the limits of what they can accomplish, rather than to mix false hope with unpleasant surprises.
“He really is of the mindset: ‘You know what. We’re going to try the bottom-up approach in good faith, we’re going to show the playbook,’” said Rep. Tom Reed, R-N.Y. “Not everybody believes that the playbook that is being shown is exactly, 100 percent [of] it, but overall, I think more and more members are starting to gain trust.”
Indeed, Meadows said that the accuracy of the playbook was his group’s concern.
“Generally, his leadership style is one of asking a lot of questions but not necessarily giving definitive answers to those questions,” he said. “If — and I do stress if — there is any frustration, it is with the lack of clarity on an exact plan that will be deployed versus a plan to be considered.”
Yet others praised Ryan’s willingness to air out and debate disagreements within the party.
One example mentioned by several Republicans was the fight over Ryan and Brady’s own pet project, the border-adjusted corporate tax.
The revolutionary idea was to tax corporations, whether American or foreign, for sales in the U.S., and not for sales outside the country. It had strong support from many tax economists, but drew major opposition from retailers afraid of higher taxes on imports, as well as from the network of groups backed by the Koch Brothers.
As the GOP pushed tax legislation in early 2017, the outside opposition to the BAT took their case directly to rank-and-file Republicans, challenging Ryan and Brady’s grip on their own conference.
Ryan and Brady clung to the plan even as more and more Republicans publicly came out against it. In fact, some conservatives saw Ryan’s insistence on the specific provision as the downside of his keen policy focus.
Even as the Koch-backed group Americans for Prosperity fought Ryan on border adjustment, though, the group continued to coordinate with him on other aspects of the tax reform push. Tim Phillips, the group’s president, praised Ryan’s cooperation in spite of the disagreement. “I think outside groups across the board felt that way,” he said.
Ryan has helped himself with conservatives, said one conservative lobbyist who worked on the border-adjustment issue, by not seeking retribution against right-wingers who vote against his initiatives, and for never mocking them. That's something Boehner did, to the consternation of House conservatives.
“They don’t feel like they’re being screwed even if he’s not going to be with them,” said the lobbyist, who asked not to be named because he has business before the House.
The path from the 'path'
In fact, many conservatives believe that Ryan is one of them in a way that Boehner was not, or that he at least speaks their language.
Ryan came to prominence within the conference as the top Republican on the Budget Committee, promoting his Roadmap for America’s Future proposal for stabilizing the federal debt by cutting government spending. The centerpiece of the blueprint was an idea for replacing Medicare, the old-age health insurance program, with government support for purchases of private insurance.
In time, Ryan would win over the conference to the fiscally conservative plan, elevated along the way by sparring with President Barack Obama.
Never before had Republicans, as a group, endorsed such a sweeping framework for supply-side economics and fiscal conservatism, and it was Ryan’s doing. He had established a new, much more conservative center for the GOP on budgetary and economic issues.
At the same time, he had solidified the perception on the Left that he was a radical, and established himself as a top villain.
Whatever his perception nationally or among outside budget experts or economists, Ryan is viewed by his fellow Republicans as a domestic policy expert, and that reputation has proven to be an asset in his political role as speaker.
“Good policy makes for good politics, and there’s nobody who knows the policy better,” said Eric Cantor, the former House majority leader.
“There’s no question that the speaker’s background and knowledge on economics and tax was invaluable in getting tax reform done,” said Neil Bradley, the executive vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a former GOP leadership staffer.
Yet, policy expertise is only one aspect of the job. Ryan also helps his own cause with frequent media appearances to promote the GOP. And he has proven to be a prodigious fundraiser. Last year, he raised $44 million, a record for a non-election year.
Those are funds that can be used to help cultivate loyalty and build a coalition. But in Ryan’s case, it explains only about a fifth of his sway over the House, reckoned Ken Kies, a prominent tax lobbyist with the Federal Policy Group. Instead, Kies said, the explanation of Ryan’s management of his caucus is that “he obviously has political skills.”
Ryan’s previous role in the national spotlight — as Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012 — was a failure, and he is still viewed highly unfavorably. But he has easily won re-election in a not-particularly-safe Wisconsin district for nearly two decades running. And he does, in fact, have experience in political negotiations, having successfully brokered a bipartisan budget deal in 2013, when he was the Budget Committee chairman, with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
“He’s made that transition from policy wonk to leader, and I’m personally amazed how quickly he was able to do that,” Flores said.
One major setback in that transition was the first, failed attempt in the House to pass Obamacare repeal legislation, after years of promises.
Last year, the House broke for Easter recess without having passed an Obamacare repeal bill, in part thanks to opposition from the Freedom Caucus. Republicans faced town halls full of constituents angry about President Trump and about the possibility of Obamacare repeal, without anything to show for conservative constituents.
After the House came back, though, the relationship between the Freedom Caucus and leadership changed.
Meadows and MacArthur, representatives of the two poles in the conference, joined on an amendment meant to allow states to opt out of the main Obamacare protections. Outside conservative groups soon lent their support to the bill, and by May, House Republicans had passed the bill and prematurely celebrated repeal at the White House with Trump. The initiative failed in the Senate, but Ryan had held up his part of the bargain.
In the next big initiative, tax reform, Ryan and leadership got buy-in from the Freedom Caucus, outside groups, the White House, and Senate before unveiling legislation. The historic rewrite of the tax code moved through the House at breakneck speed with the enthusiastic backing of conservatives.
One reality of embracing an inclusive governing style is that Meadows and the Freedom Caucus wield power within the conference, and thus over the government.
By joining with several dozen other hardline conservatives to gain leverage over the conference, Meadows is effectively in a power-sharing agreement with Ryan.
It’s almost an unavoidable situation: Either work with the Freedom Caucus, and allow them to steer the conference in a more conservative, confrontational direction, or work against them and risk a revolt.
“Regardless of whether you think he’s an adversary, Meadows has power,” said James Wallner, a senior fellow of the R Street Institute who studies Congress and the legislative process. “So, it makes sense for the Republican leadership to work with him to manage the conference and pass its agenda.”
Matthew Green, a professor of politics at Catholic University who researches congressional dynamics, noted that past speakers, such as Democrat Tip O’Neill, have used a similar approach. It's called “the politics of inclusion,” a way to try to manage the differences inherent in any political coalition.
But the dynamic Ryan faces is new, in Green’s estimation, because “you have a well-organized faction, not sort of toward the center, but toward the extreme wing of a party. And one that is willing to vote against the leadership on major bills.”
That faction isn’t interested in climbing the party ladder. And it doesn’t need to in order to win re-election, thanks to the rise of outside groups that rival the party committees' campaign finance power.
Not that hardliners are in a position to actually serve as speaker. None has the requisite ability to build coalitions or raise funds. Nevertheless, they help set the agenda within the House. And in last year’s healthcare and tax debates, they demonstrated that their power isn’t just in saying “no,” but also in saying “yes.”
Of course, the other factor that makes Ryan’s challenge unique is Trump.
It's not just that he's president. Trump remains popular in the reddest districts and has strong relationships with Meadows and others in the Freedom Caucus.
Accordingly, it’s not possible to simply write off right-wingers as dead-enders, as happened several times in the Obama era. More likely, they’re in line with the White House.
Of course, the added challenge, which Ryan didn’t know he was signing up for in 2015, is the erratic and disruptive behavior that Trump regularly engages in, demanding a level of flexibility and damage control far beyond what previous leaders had to manage. Unlike some members of the conference, Ryan regularly has to answer to the national media for Trump’s behavior. In doing so, he constantly faces the charge from the Left that he’s capitulated to Trump.
Furthermore, Ryan is a top target for some of Trump’s populist allies, although the most prominent Ryan antagonist — Stephen Bannon — is now on the outs with Trump.
“I think [Ryan]’s done as best as one can do given what are at times trying political circumstances that he has to respond to,” Sanford said.
Sanford is one of the very few Republicans to openly and consistently criticize Trump’s excesses and deviations. Yet, when asked, Sanford gave Ryan high marks on dealing with Trump. No one else, he said, has had to deal with “that component of uncertainty, surprise and, at times, political duress based on the immediacy of the tweet age that we live in.”
Trump’s Twitter feed, in particular, has put Ryan in the embarrassing position of having to ignore nearly-daily provocative tweets in order to maintain peace within the party, at the expense of having to claim to miss major policy shifts that Trump rolls out unexpectedly 140 (and now as many as 280) characters at a time.
His members are sympathetic, though.
“I think he’s doing a better job of staying out of that fray to a large degree, weighing in when he has to,” Reed said. “That’s not a science, that’s an art.”
The truth underlying the GOP truce under Ryan, though, is that his tenure so far was paid for with Boehner’s political capital.
“We’re still living off the last Boehner deal,” Dent said. Boehner cut a two-year budget deal with Obama in the fall of 2015, just before handing off the speaker’s gavel to Ryan, an accord that he had to sacrifice his job to obtain. The ensuing spending bill passed with mostly Democratic votes.
That deal has now expired, and an extension runs out in February. Meanwhile, Republicans are negotiating with Democrats over the impending deadline for the expiration of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. Lastly, the federal debt ceiling must soon be raised.
Those are major potential fault lines for conservatives. They don’t want a deal that raises spending caps. They don’t want an increase in the debt ceiling without budgetary reforms. And immigration restrictionists want Trump’s wall in exchange for a legislative fix for DACA, in addition to other border security and immigration reforms.
“It’s all going to come to a head over the next few weeks,” Dent said.
The problem, from Dent’s view, of the next few weeks, is that there won’t be a budget agreement until the two parties agree on DACA. And there won’t be a bipartisan deal on DACA that could garner the support of the majority of the House.
Boehner’s downfall was that he had no choice but to rely on Democratic votes for spending deals and on immigration-related bills, such as a 2015 Department of Homeland Security funding bill that conservatives wanted to use to reverse Obama’s executive orders on immigration.
Ryan, too, could wear out his welcome by passing bills with mostly Democratic votes in order to avoid government shutdowns or a standoff over the debt ceiling. It’s a prospect that has contributed to speculation that he might step down after 2018.
The problem is especially acute in the case of immigration, Trump’s signature issue, and the one that helped him defeat 16 other Republican presidential candidates. It's an issue on which Ryan historically has been at odds with the restrictionists in his own party.
“There’s a high degree of apprehension that we end up with something that’s jammed on us,” King said.
Nevertheless, King said, he isn’t angry, because he understands that the intra-party disagreement is a substantive one.
"This is going to take the kind of acumen that Paul brings to the table,” said Cantor of the upcoming negotiations. Cantor, now an investment banker, lost his Richmond-area seat to Freedom Caucus member Dave Brat, who ran on immigration restrictionism.
The Freedom Caucus is saying that they’re putting stock in the promise that Ryan made before becoming speaker, which was to observe the rule, once known as the “Hastert Rule,” that only bills that can pass will be brought to the floor.
In conferences and meetings, Ryan has leveled with the party about the concessions that will have to be made with Democrats in the spending fight, Flores said. The transparency, he said, has helped the conference to understand that “we need to sometimes to take votes we don’t like in order to put him in a position that, when the Democrats ultimately come out of the wilderness, he has a strong hand to deal at the table.”
If they don’t, then Ryan loses face and influence. At that point, Ryan wouldn’t be in a leadership position. And they don’t want that.