Paul Ryan, Teaming Up With Obama, Takes a Big Gamble on Trade

How Ryan manages to hold conservative coalitions together in the final hours of trade negotiations.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 05: House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) questions Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Elmendorf during a hearing in the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill February 5, 2014 in Washington, DC. Committee members questioned Elmendorf about the latest projections by the CBO, which says the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, will affect supply and demand for labor, leading to a net reduction of about 2.5 million full-time jobs by 2024. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
National Journal
June 9, 2015, 4:01 p.m.

Be­fore they were al­lies, they were cam­paign-trail foes.

Yet, since tak­ing the gavel of the in­flu­en­tial Ways and Means Com­mit­tee, Chair­man Paul Ry­an has emerged as Pres­id­ent Obama’s most con­vin­cing mes­sen­ger on Cap­it­ol Hill on be­half of a free-trade agree­ment that would be a big boost to the pres­id­ent’s le­gis­lat­ive leg­acy.

The House could vote on Trade Pro­mo­tion Au­thor­ity, also known as “fast track,” as early as this week. The le­gis­la­tion would lim­it Con­gress to an up-or-down vote on fu­ture trade deals ne­go­ti­ated by the pres­id­ent. If it passes, it will be a kind of gradu­ation mo­ment for Ry­an, the first ma­jor le­gis­lat­ive ac­com­plish­ment since he left the Budget Com­mit­tee. Un­like his vis­ion­ary budget doc­u­ments that made him a sen­sa­tion in con­ser­vat­ive circles, however, trade puts Ry­an on the same side as a pres­id­ent con­ser­vat­ives dis­trust and tests the re­la­tion­ships he has care­fully built with those in the far right of his party.

(RE­LATED: Paul Ry­an Could Be a 2016 Con­tender — So Why Is He Talk­ing About Go­ing Home?

“The fact that the pres­id­ent is in­volved in the pro­cess makes it more dif­fi­cult for any Re­pub­lic­an, com­pared to simply put­ting to­geth­er our own budget that the pres­id­ent does not have to sign,” House Fin­an­cial Ser­vices Com­mit­tee Chair­man Jeb Hensarling says of Ry­an’s trade push.

Since tak­ing over the House Ways and Means Com­mit­tee six months ago, Ry­an has been en­gaged in map­ping out the way for­ward on a trade bill that is a key pri­or­ity for Obama. But Ry­an’s cal­cu­la­tion, and the mes­sage he gives to Re­pub­lic­ans, is that it is just as im­port­ant to the GOP’s own eco­nom­ic and elect­or­al suc­cess.

“If Re­pub­lic­ans de­rail trade, we add to the nar­rat­ive that Amer­ica is on de­cline, which is now uniquely tied to Obama’s policies — policies we dis­agree with pro­foundly as Re­pub­lic­ans,” Ry­an told Na­tion­al Journ­al.

(RE­LATED: Why ‘Fast Track’ Faces So Much Con­gres­sion­al Op­pos­i­tion

Even be­fore Re­pub­lic­an lead­ers began whip­ping the bill weeks ago, Ry­an was un­der­tak­ing his own mem­ber-track­ing op­er­a­tion. He held dozens of edu­ca­tion sem­inars. He in­vited con­ser­vat­ives to meet with him privately. He listened to con­cerns and made his pitch that trade was an es­sen­tial part of grow­ing the eco­nomy. This week alone, Ry­an has met with 20 mem­bers of his party in one-on-one meet­ings. While he ac­know­ledges he’s work­ing on the same side as the pres­id­ent, Ry­an un­der­scores that the trade bill he is push­ing will out­last this pres­id­ent, and that trade deals are fun­da­ment­ally con­ser­vat­ive.

“If the name Obama was nowhere to be seen in this, it would be fine for most people,” Ry­an says. “We be­lieve in free trade. That is one of our party’s primary prin­ciples.”

As the vote on TPA ap­proaches, there is in­creas­ing pres­sure on Ry­an and Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship to de­liv­er votes from con­ser­vat­ives who are skep­tic­al of sup­port­ing any­thing that boosts Obama. While the White House has its own whip op­er­a­tion, it’s been dif­fi­cult for ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials to garner the 25 to 30 Demo­crat­ic votes they will need to de­liv­er. Sev­er­al GOP aides have ex­pressed frus­tra­tion that the ad­min­is­tra­tion isn’t hold­ing up its side of the bar­gain. Many have blamed the ad­min­is­tra­tion for lean­ing on mem­bers it had — up to this point — failed to build re­la­tion­ships with. And to make things more dif­fi­cult, trade uni­ons have stepped up their lob­by­ing ef­forts and Demo­crat­ic lead­ers are stay­ing on the side­lines.

(RE­LATED: With Trade Vote Loom­ing, Hoy­er Stays On the Fence

But those with­in the Re­pub­lic­an whip op­er­a­tion say all of the tur­moil on the Demo­crat­ic side has hardly dis­trac­ted Ry­an. In­stead, it has em­boldened him to double down on his en­gage­ment strategy. Re­pub­lic­ans say the strategy has been far more in­volved than the typ­ic­al whip op­er­a­tion, as lead­ers reach out to state movers and shakers in ag­ri­cul­ture, busi­ness, and man­u­fac­tur­ing to in­flu­ence waver­ing mem­bers. Busi­ness Roundtable spokes­man Kev­in Mad­den said his group has spent in the “sev­en fig­ures” on ad­vert­ising in 160 dis­tricts.

“Each pitch has been tailored to each in­di­vidu­al,” says Rep. Tom Cole, who is on the whip team and is sup­port­ing TPA. “We are try­ing to move people on a one-on-one basis. This is very un­usu­al that we are go­ing to this kind of ef­fort.”

But Cole says Ry­an con­tin­ues to be the single most con­vin­cing mem­ber on the is­sue.

“He has an in­tel­lec­tu­al cred­ib­il­ity that no oth­er mem­ber matches. He brings enorm­ous prestige to this,” Cole says. “No one else serving on the floor has been the can­did­ate for vice pres­id­ent of the United States, and throughout the en­tire Re­pub­lic­an co­ali­tion, he really has been the ar­chi­tect of our think­ing on everything from en­ti­tle­ment re­form to fin­an­cial policy to trade.”

(RE­LATED: The Trade Para­dox

Ry­an earned his wonk­ish wun­der­kind per­sona early after ar­riv­ing on Cap­it­ol Hill at the age of 28. With his budgets, he helped define his party’s vis­ion. And, after serving as the party’s vice pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate in 2012, he re­turned to the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives with an even high­er-pro­file status. But Ry­an has been tested be­fore. When he forged ahead with a bi­par­tis­an budget com­prom­ise along­side Demo­crat­ic Sen. Patty Mur­ray, he got flack from out­side groups and con­ser­vat­ive pun­dits who viewed the deal as Re­pub­lic­an ca­pit­u­la­tion. Sen. Marco Ru­bio called it “ir­re­spons­ible.”

But in­stead of lash­ing out and say­ing con­ser­vat­ive groups had “lost all cred­ib­il­ity,” as House Speak­er John Boehner did, Ry­an called the out­side groups “im­port­ant ele­ments of our con­ser­vat­ive fam­ily.”

And, in his quest to se­cure votes for TPA, Ry­an has re­lied on the con­tacts he has forged with out­side groups like Her­it­age and Club for Growth. They wield con­sid­er­able power over con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers and could be key to Ry­an passing TPA. Ry­an has been work­ing to en­sure that neither group scores fast-track neg­at­ively.

Club for Growth Pres­id­ent Dav­id McIn­tosh says that while his group sup­ports TPA, it has con­cerns about a cur­rency-ma­nip­u­la­tion meas­ure that is tied to it. The Club would also like to see Boehner prom­ise to let the Ex­port-Im­port Bank ex­pire as part of the trade ne­go­ti­ation. Yet McIn­tosh said his group — which sup­ports the un­der­ly­ing free-trade prin­ciples — is still lean­ing to­ward re­main­ing neut­ral on the bill if those de­mands are not met. That de­cision, he says, has a lot to do with Paul Ry­an.

“People trust him and know that when he says something, he is not telling someone else something else. He has a lot of in­teg­rity,” McIn­tosh says. “He has the re­la­tion­ship with us that we will cer­tainly listen to him and re­spect his as­sess­ment.”

Amer­ic­ans for Tax Re­form founder and pres­id­ent Grover Nor­quist, who sup­ports TPA, said he’s been im­pressed to see Ry­an’s in­tens­ive reach-out op­er­a­tion.

“Ry­an spends more face time with more mem­bers than any oth­er Re­pub­lic­an,” Nor­quist says.

Nor­quist is do­ing his own out­reach as well on Cap­it­ol Hill, and ATR is mak­ing calls in 40 dis­tricts to en­cour­age voters to con­tact their mem­bers of Con­gress.

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