Ryan, McConnell Lead in Different Directions

The Hill’s top two Republicans have divergent goals this election year.

House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell walk to a Senate Republican policy luncheon on Nov. 3.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Jan. 12, 2016, 8 p.m.

House and Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans travel to Bal­timore this week for a bicam­er­al party pow­wow, with new GOP House lead­er­ship for the first time in al­most a dec­ade. But head­ing in­to the end-of-week re­treat and an elec­tion year, both cham­bers have very dif­fer­ent vis­ions of what they can and should ac­com­plish in 2016, thanks in part to the stark dif­fer­ences between their two lead­ers.

New House Speak­er Paul Ry­an is an ideas man, a wonk whose am­bi­tious policy vis­ion has re­defined the party and giv­en GOP mem­bers a plat­form to run on. But while Ry­an had to be ca­joled in­to run­ning for speak­er—his con­gres­sion­al ca­reer has al­ways had a self-im­posed ex­pir­a­tion date on it—Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell is an in­sti­tu­tion­al­ist, a man whose dream of run­ning the Sen­ate, once ful­filled, turned to mak­ing it run prop­erly.

As the two men dis­cuss their plans for 2016, an elec­tion year in which any ser­i­ous policy pro­pos­als will be dif­fi­cult to pass through a hes­it­ant, bal­lot-minded Con­gress, the con­trast couldn’t be more stark. Ry­an has said re­peatedly that his first year as speak­er will be marked by ma­jor policy pro­pos­als, of the kind he’s used to mak­ing him­self. Ry­an’s House will be an in­cub­at­or for Re­pub­lic­an ideas, giv­ing mem­bers run­ning for pres­id­ent and for Con­gress something to point to as they de­scribe where the party hopes to take the coun­try, and he said he is eager to start that con­ver­sa­tion im­me­di­ately.

“What I want to ac­com­plish at our re­treat is the be­gin­nings of the con­ver­sa­tion of as­sem­bling an agenda to take to the coun­try, and the launch­ing of a pro­cess un­der which we put that agenda to­geth­er,” Ry­an told re­port­ers Tues­day.

Mc­Con­nell, on the oth­er hand, has fo­cused on re­turn­ing to reg­u­lar or­der, passing 12 ap­pro­pri­ations bills to keep the gov­ern­ment’s doors open, along­side a few bills that share broad bi­par­tis­an sup­port. Mc­Con­nell’s plan is, as he likes to say, to get the Sen­ate “back to work.” When asked by ABC’s George Stephan­o­poulos on Sunday what one ma­jor bill he could send to the pres­id­ent this year, Mc­Con­nell turned im­me­di­ately to ap­pro­pri­ations, ad­mit­ting that his goals wer­en’t ex­actly as ex­cit­ing to voters as Ry­an’s.

“I think … this may be a little bit bor­ing to the pub­lic, but we haven’t passed every single bill that runs the gov­ern­ment, the ap­pro­pri­ation[s] bill, since 1994,” Mc­Con­nell said Sunday, call­ing it a part of Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans’ “con­tinu­ing ef­fort to end dys­func­tion in Con­gress.”

The dif­fer­ences, in part, re­flect the op­por­tun­it­ies and the lim­it­a­tions of the cham­ber each man leads. The House, with its abil­ity to act quickly, has of­ten served as a petri dish for ideas, while the slower Sen­ate is ham­strung by its com­plex de­bate rules and the power giv­en to the minor­ity party. And while House GOP lead­er­ship aides cau­tion that Ry­an has prom­ised only to pro­pose ideas, not pass them, do­ing even that could put the Sen­ate in a squeeze.

Mc­Con­nell in 2016 has fur­ther con­cerns: the needs of his three GOP sen­at­ors who are pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates as well as those of the five Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors run­ning for reelec­tion in states that Pres­id­ent Obama won twice. Big ideas could give them something to run on, but as Ry­an learned through the Demo­crats’ lam­bast­ing of his budget plan in the 2010 and 2012 elec­tions, they can also cre­ate new tar­gets on the backs of vul­ner­able mem­bers.

If in fact many cru­cial House ideas are the vic­tims of Sen­ate in­ac­tion rather than Pres­id­ent Obama’s veto pen, the up­per cham­ber’s fail­ure to take up those cent­ral is­sues could make it dif­fi­cult for the party to prove to voters they should hand them the keys to the White House too.

Still, Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Con­gres­sion­al Com­mit­tee Chair­man Greg Walden said, Sen­ate in­activ­ity in and of it­self is something Re­pub­lic­ans will cite to make the case to voters that they should elect a Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ent. That is be­cause while the House has lim­ited polit­ic­al risk this elec­tion cycle, the Sen­ate is vul­ner­able, and Mc­Con­nell could blame his own cham­ber’s timid­ity on an un­sym­path­et­ic pres­id­ent.

“They would have a big­ger in­cent­ive to move for­ward if we had a Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ent,” Walden said. “If you know you’re go­ing to make big change and it’s go­ing to be­come law, it’s of­ten worth the risk. If you aren’t sure it’s go­ing to be­come law, then it’s OK to maybe talk about it, but do you really want to go all the way out if you know it’s not go­ing to be­come law? It’s sort of the rule of polit­ics re­gard­less of where you are.”

But many in the House GOP are not so for­giv­ing. Sev­er­al out­spoken con­ser­vat­ives have taken to bash­ing Mc­Con­nell whenev­er pos­sible, and a pro­spect­ive sense of pess­im­ism has spread even to some lead­er­ship-al­lied Re­pub­lic­ans.

“The prob­lem is Mc­Con­nell’s life am­bi­tion was the be ma­jor­ity lead­er. He’s achieved that. He’s go­ing to spend the rest of his ca­reer try­ing to hold onto that,” said one such mem­ber, speak­ing an­onym­ously to be more can­did. “Paul’s life am­bi­tion is about mak­ing Amer­ica bet­ter through policy change. Paul is look­ing at the ho­ri­zon, Mc­Con­nell is watch­ing his back. That’s the crux of the clash.”

Mak­ing the case for a Re­pub­lic­an tri­um­vir­ate in 2017 will be dif­fi­cult if two corners of the tri­angle spend the elec­tion year quar­rel­ing. But Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors say they’re not con­cerned about the dis­par­ate pri­or­it­ies and the lower-stakes goals for the Sen­ate in 2016. The up­per cham­ber needs to walk be­fore it can run, es­pe­cially since it has spent much of the last few years at a crawl.

“We’re not say­ing we’re not in­ter­ested in do­ing big things,” Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Whip John Cornyn said Tues­day. But first, the Sen­ate needs to get it­self in or­der by passing in­di­vidu­al spend­ing bills, a goal House lead­ers say they share.

Sen. Lamar Al­ex­an­der, a close Mc­Con­nell ally, blamed any split on the dif­fer­ence in rules between the two cham­bers, not­ing that the Sen­ate has “a slower pro­cess and we have to op­er­ate in a more bi­par­tis­an way.” But, he ar­gued that the two cham­bers can ac­tu­ally “work very well to­geth­er,” point­ing to last year’s com­prom­ise on No Child Left Be­hind, which he spear­headed in the Sen­ate.

“I like what Paul Ry­an is do­ing. I like his fo­cus on the fu­ture, his fo­cus on big ideas, and we’ll work in par­al­lel with that as much as pos­sible,” Al­ex­an­der said.

“You can’t have one without the oth­er,” Sen­ate Pres­id­ent Pro Tem Or­rin Hatch said Monday of the di­vide between Ry­an’s push for policy and Mc­Con­nell’s for reg­u­lar or­der. But he re­it­er­ated what be­came a re­pet­it­ive warn­ing at last year’s joint Re­pub­lic­an re­treat just after the party took over the Sen­ate: The up­per cham­ber has lim­it­a­tions.

“They’re two very dif­fer­ent bod­ies, with two very dif­fer­ent sets of rules. But you know, a lot de­pends upon what the art of the doable dic­tates,” Hatch said.

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