From Reluctant Recruit to Happy Warrior

“I think people are relieved,” Paul Ryan says of his speakership so far, projecting confidence about his 2016 agenda.

House Speaker Paul Ryan during an end-of-the-year news conference on Thursday as Congress moved toward passage of a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Dec. 18, 2015, 4:59 p.m.

Christ­mas is com­ing, and House Speak­er Paul Ry­an is in a merry mood.

Just hours after passing a massive bi­par­tis­an spend­ing bill in con­vin­cing fash­ion, one day after notch­ing scores of tax policy wins and barely two months in­to his speak­er­ship, Ry­an has fully trans­formed from re­luct­ant re­cruit in­to happy war­ri­or.

Now he just has to bring the Re­pub­lic­an Party with him.

“I’m very happy with how the last sev­en weeks have gone,” he told a small group of re­port­ers as­sembled in his Baroque-style Cap­it­ol of­fice.

The space has been re­painted with a fresh coat of pala­tial red, part of the suc­cess­ful ef­fort to rid it of the damp to­bacco smell of its pre­vi­ous in­hab­it­ant, John Boehner. So too has the cloud of Boehner’s pres­ence and ab­rupt de­par­ture seem­ingly been lif­ted from Con­gress.

Yes, many mem­bers are still frus­trated, But Ry­an has, to para­phrase his pre­de­cessor, cleaned the barn, and the House is ready to move in­to 2016 on his terms with him at the helm. The past was rocky, but in talk­ing about the fu­ture he is calm and con­fid­ent.

“When John Boehner threw the curve­ball of his unanti­cip­ated resig­na­tion, it threw the place in­to a bit of chaos. Mem­bers were very wor­ried about where this was all go­ing, and it looked like Con­gress was go­ing to seize up and come to a screech­ing halt,” Ry­an said. “People looked at that situ­ation around Con­gress and saw all that they came here to do, to work on, ba­sic­ally be­ing all for naught. That we were about to have such a chaot­ic crash, that the hard work that they took to get here, to le­gis­late, to make a dif­fer­ence, was go­ing to be in vain.”

In his speak­er­ship, though, Ry­an said his mem­bers see a change to a cul­ture in which con­ser­vat­ives can uni­fy and all mem­bers have le­gis­lat­ive in­put. He points to the just-passed om­ni­bus and tax bill, as well as the re­cently passed early-edu­ca­tion and high­way au­thor­iz­a­tion bills as proof Con­gress is back to work.

To be sure, the om­ni­bus bill passed un­der his watch came to­geth­er in a top-down pro­cess more re­min­is­cent of his pre­de­cessor. Ry­an said even he is dis­gus­ted with the pro­cess, but he wanted to close it out to move on to a new chapter. Even still, he said mem­bers feel they have had more in­put than in the re­cent past.

“Since we have re­stored that fair­ness to the pro­cess—I have done everything I said I was go­ing to do—I think people are re­lieved, and they now real­ize the out­come doesn’t have to be per­fect, it may not even be what they want, but at least they had a fair chance of af­fect­ing the out­come,” he said.

Ry­an said he honed his se­rene de­mean­or dur­ing the chaos of the 2012 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign trail, when he was Mitt Rom­ney’s run­ning mate. He has learned to un­plug and does not get rattled or fazed by high praise or deep cri­ti­cism, es­pe­cially from the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment that birthed him and now seems ready to dis­own him.

Tak­ing that les­son away from a pres­id­en­tial con­test seems quaint giv­en the any­thing-but-Zen ten­or of the cur­rent GOP primary race. Ry­an said he re­cog­nizes the tone of his party’s would-be pres­id­ents is dif­fer­ent from his own, but that it’s just the nature of the primar­ies and things will change come the gen­er­al elec­tion. He blames the ran­cor, un­sur­pris­ingly, on Pres­id­ent Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, which he said has set a “gov­ern­ing tem­pera­ment that is ar­rog­ant, pa­ter­nal­ist­ic, and con­des­cend­ing.

“That deep sense of anxi­ety in the coun­try is what is fuel­ing all of this, and that tells me we owe people the right to de­cide if they want to stay on this path or not,” he said. “And the only way you can do that is if you of­fer an­oth­er path—and not just some vague plat­it­udes, not just get some poll­ster to tell you what to say, but an ac­tu­al path.”

But that can­not wait un­til a nom­in­ee is chosen. Ry­an said he and Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Kev­in Mc­Carthy will hunker down with the con­fer­ence over the break and in­to Janu­ary to draft a gov­ern­ing vis­ion. Wheth­er that will be bound in con­tract or pledge form re­mains to be seen. But some of the ten­ets are emer­ging. He wants to move on two tracks, both work­ing with Demo­crats on areas where they can find com­mon ground—for in­stance, on crim­in­al-justice re­form and the ap­pro­pri­ations pro­cess—and also stak­ing out con­trast by passing solely GOP le­gis­la­tion, such as a re­peal of Obama­care.

Ry­an said the House will vote on a re­con­cili­ation pack­age in Janu­ary that re­verses Obama­care and cuts off fed­er­al fund­ing to Planned Par­ent­hood, and the House will craft and vote on an al­tern­at­ive to the pres­id­ent’s health law. He is cog­niz­ant, in the mean­time, of Boehner’s warn­ing not to over­prom­ise to the elect­or­ate.

“I’m not go­ing to say it’s go­ing in­to law. … But are we go­ing to pro­pose something? You bet we are,” he said. “We will make com­mit­ments on things that are with­in our con­trol. Mak­ing a pro­pos­al is with­in our con­trol. Don’t sug­gest that we’re go­ing to say that pro­pos­al is go­ing in­to law in 2016—with a pres­id­ent named Obama—[and that] we’re go­ing to re­peal something like Obama­care. That’s not what’s be­ing prom­ised and com­mit­ted to.”

He said the House could also take up an au­thor­iz­a­tion for the use of mil­it­ary force to tar­get ji­hadist ter­ror­ists in the Middle East, and Mc­Carthy and For­eign Af­fairs Com­mit­tee Chair­man Ed Royce will start listen­ing ses­sions on the top­ic in Janu­ary. But he knows his con­fer­ence would not pass any­thing that in any way lim­its this pres­id­ent or the next from mil­it­ary en­gage­ment with the Is­lam­ic State.

“I think it would be a good sym­bol of Amer­ic­an re­solve to have a new AUMF to go after IS­IS, to thor­oughly de­feat and des­troy IS­IS. Not to con­tain—to des­troy IS­IS. But we will not pass an AUMF that is de­signed to tie the hands of the next pres­id­ent,” he said.

And in gen­er­al, he said, he wants to al­low more votes, and not just ones that are pre-san­it­ized for con­sump­tion dur­ing an elec­tion year, but ones that al­low both Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans to pro­pose real policies.

“There’s a plus side and a down­side of reg­u­lar or­der and open­ing up the pro­cess. People have got to take votes, and that’s just the way the cook­ie crumbles,” Ry­an said. “I came here with a D+3 dis­trict and then it be­came an R+0 dis­trict. … So I’m no stranger to tak­ing tough votes and ex­plain­ing it in dif­fi­cult polit­ic­al situ­ations. It clearly can be done, so you’ve just got to lean in­to it and do it.

“What this place al­ways used to do is try to pre­de­ter­mine everything, down to the amend­ment. I don’t think that the speak­er’s of­fice should have that kind of power,” he ad­ded.

Still, there are some things he said he simply will not do, for vari­ous reas­ons. Com­pre­hens­ive tax re­form is out of the ques­tion for 2016, he said, be­cause the gulf of ideas between his party and the pres­id­ent’s is too wide. Ry­an is an avid deer hunter (he star­ted grow­ing his new beard in a deer blind, and he makes ven­ison saus­age and jerky in his free time), and gun-con­trol le­gis­la­tion to re­spond to the coun­try’s spate of mass shoot­ings is out of the ques­tion.

“What we should fo­cus on is crim­in­als, ter­ror­ists, men­tal-health re­form, and we should not be dis­trac­ted with ideas that take away the con­sti­tu­tion­al rights of law-abid­ing cit­izens,” he said.

Not all of this will work, he con­ceded. As he said in his speech ac­cept­ing the speak­er­ship, he ex­pects bills to fail and con­siders that a healthy part of the le­gis­lat­ive pro­cess. The Left and the Right will take aim at him. But he said he will re­main the happy war­ri­or throughout.

“I’m sure there are go­ing to be web­sites and voices out there that will al­ways be con­trari­an, no mat­ter who is in charge and no mat­ter what we are do­ing. That’s to be ex­pec­ted,” he said. “But the core of the con­ser­vat­ive move­ment is yearn­ing to be uni­fied around a bold, con­ser­vat­ive, spe­cif­ic agenda, and that’s what we are go­ing to do.”

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