WASHINGTON– Rep. Paul Ryan was flying home to Wisconsin last week when he admitted to one of his colleagues that he has been forced into considering a job he has long been skeptical of taking.
“He’s not real excited about doing it,” Rep. Reid Ribble recalled Ryan telling him when they discussed the House speakership on a flight from Chicago.
Indeed, people who have spoken to Ryan over the last several days say the Wisconsin Republican is deeply torn about taking the job — worried that the position will force him into abandoning his long-held policy goals but also cognizant that he is almost certainly the lone figure who can rebuild a caucus now in deep disarray.
“He’s in a tough spot because he knows he’s the only one who can do it,” said one Republican source who spoke to Ryan on Friday.
Ryan, the party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee who now chairs the powerful Ways and Means Committee, is expected to wait until Congress reconvenes next week — at the earliest — before making a final decision on which way to proceed. Some Republicans think the question of whether Ryan will run may not be ultimately resolved until the final week of October.
Ryan, under the advice and counsel of his friends, has laid low this week at his home in Janesville, a move both personal and strategic. It’s given him space to discuss his future with his family while also spending time with his kids, putting up Halloween decorations at his home and planning a hunting trip.
But it’s also given Ryan’s allies hope that lawmakers will feel the heat back home over the GOP’s leadership vacuum, forcing even some skeptics to quickly unify behind him when the House GOP meets behind close doors next Wednesday.
Indeed, when House Speaker John Boehner addressed Republicans last week in a private meeting, he told his colleagues to “open your eyes, open your ears” and listen to what constituents had to say about their leadership problems during the weeklong recess, according to several lawmakers.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-California, said the message from voters has been clear: The GOP needs to get its act together — quickly.
“I’ve met with a lot of conservative Republicans over the last four days, and they are not happy,” Nunes said. “They want something done and they want something done now because we look like a party that can’t govern. And when they understand that over 200 of us were supporting Boehner and were also willing to support [Kevin] McCarthy and also wiling to support Paul Ryan. This is starting to not make sense to our conservative Republican base.”
Nunes added: “It really threatens the future of the party.”
Ryan looking for unaminity
The GOP was thrown into chaos last month when Boehner abruptly announced his decision to resign from Congress, a move aimed at avoiding a messy floor fight over his future instigated by a few dozen members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus.
Following Boehner’s decision to quit, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy began an aggressive campaign to win the job, but suddenly pulled out of the race after House conservatives threw their support behind the long-shot candidacy of Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida.
Webster and Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah remain in the race, but Chaffetz has signaled he would drop out if Ryan jumps in, while Webster has been noncommittal. The list of potential candidates is bound to grow to possibly a dozen or more if Ryan stays out, including Texas Rep. Bill Flores, who began laying the groundwork for a potential candidacy this week.
Ryan’s allies say he has little interest in courting the Freedom Caucus if he jumps into the race. If he does run, his allies say, it’ll be because virtually all of the 247 House Republicans are likely to support his candidacy — not be forced to limp to the speakership in the same manner as McCarthy, who would have struggled to barely exceed the 218 votes needed to become speaker.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, a member of the Freedom Caucus and chairman of the Tea Party Caucus, said in an interview that the conservative groups were looking for a new speaker who would promise to be more inclusive of rank-and-file members and limit the power of the leadership.
“We should try to empower members,” Huelskamp said, “not try to strip them of their positions. That was John Boehner’s approach to leadership.”
Huelskamp said that Ryan would have to hold the same meetings with conservative caucuses and try to win their support before he would be able to ascend to the position.
“To run the House, to think you’re going to do that by power of personality — that’s not what our founders intended,” Huelskamp said. “They expect members to choose their leaders — and not the other way around.”
Yet Rep. David Jolly of Florida, who backs Webster, said the conservative caucus will lose “all credibility” if it comes out in opposition to a Ryan speakership bid.
“If he fails some type of false litmus test by those who just continue to take us down this road of dysfunction, then the proponents of dysfunction will begin to lose all credibility — and frankly I think it will be their last stand,” Jolly said.
Free-for-all if Ryan stays out
Despite being a consensus candidate among most pockets of the House GOP Conference, Ryan is skeptical he can heal a conference badly divided over strategy and tactics, according to people who have spoken to him.
He’s also not keen about the amount of fundraising travel — especially with three young kids in Wisconsin — though GOP leaders have promised to lighten the burden of raising money if he took the top job.
And as he’s made reforming the massive tax code a top priority, Ryan would almost certainly have to give up much of his policy portfolio in order to take the job of managing the raucous House. Despite the speakership being second in line to the presidency, the job is bruising and could hurt his public image — something to consider if the 45-year-old weighs whether to run for the White House in the future.
“It’s the worst job in all of government,” said Ribble, who represents a district in northeastern Wisconsin. “I would bet money he does not (take the speakership). But I’m not very good at gambling.”
If Ryan passes on the bid, the list of candidates who have floated their names is only bound to grow. Flores, who leads the conservative Republican Study Committee, said he would run for speaker if Ryan does not. In a letter to colleagues Wednesday, Flores said the caucus needs to employ a “measured approach” at times in order to unify behind a common strategy.
Names ranging from Rep. John Kline of Minnesota, Rep. Peter Roskam of lllinois, Mike Pompeo of Kansas and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee — among many others — have also all been floated as possible speaker candidates.
Jolly believes that the leadership fight could extend until November if Ryan passes on the speakership.
“If Paul Ryan doesn’t get in, I think John Boehner stays as speaker for several weeks because I don’t know if we get to 218 before then,” Jolly said.
The ensuing chaos — and the possibility that a leadership vacuum could prompt bigger electoral problems for the GOP in 2016 — could be reason enough for Ryan to try to calm the choppy waters, his allies hope.
“There is no good scenario if he doesn’t get in,” one Republican source said.
By Manu Raju