Political News

Ryan Is Speaker Until January, but Can He Last That Long?

Posted May 22, 2018 9:39 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — Speaker Paul Ryan pledged to “run through the tape” and finish out his term when he announced last month that he would retire from Congress. But with Republicans in revolt on both his right and his left, Ryan is increasingly facing questions about whether he can manage to stumble across the finish line.

Ryan’s fractious conference has always been a management headache for him. But now moderates and conservatives are engaged in open warfare over one of the toughest issues before Congress — immigration — and the speaker is stuck in the middle, with no clear path forward. His colleagues know he will be gone in eight months, which is diminishing his leverage.

Ryan, of Wisconsin, also finds himself caught between emboldened conservatives taking aim at the Justice Department’s Russia investigation and more moderate voices, including top Republican officials at the department itself, desperate for him to intervene to stop them.

“Look, the members drafted me into this job because of who I am and what I stand for,” Ryan told reporters Tuesday, as he insisted that he intended to stay in the job. “I think members very much agree that what we should be doing is completing our agenda and our work.”

But even as Ryan spoke, his No. 2, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, had to push back against speculation about a possible coup, in which McCarthy would become speaker before the November election. McCarthy’s comments came after The Weekly Standard, a conservative publication, quoted Mick Mulvaney, President Donald Trump’s budget director, musing that an early departure of Ryan would require lawmakers of both parties to vote for a new speaker.

In a year when the House Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, remains a lightning rod and some moderate Democratic candidates are running away from her, Mulvaney gamed out the potential benefits for Republicans.

“I’ve talked with Kevin about this privately but not as much publicly,” Mulvaney was quoted as saying. “Wouldn’t it be great to force a Democrat running in a tight race to have to put up or shut up about voting for Nancy Pelosi eight weeks before an election? That’s a really, really good vote for us to force if we can figure out how to do it.”

Mulvaney’s office later put out a statement saying the remarks, at a conference in Colorado, “were purely hypothetical.”

At a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning, a frustrated Ryan told his colleagues they need to stick together and behave as though they are in the majority, according to several members present. Rep. Mark Amodei, R-Nev., told reporters that Ryan was so worked up in speaking to the members that he “used the word ‘crap’ once.”

“For Paul Ryan, ‘crap’ is pretty blue language,” Amodei said, a reference to Ryan’s clean-cut image.

Later, in his own defense, Ryan pointed to a busy legislative week on Capitol Hill. The House, he noted, is taking up four big pieces of legislation: a major defense policy bill; a measure allowing terminally ill patients access to medicines not approved by the Food and Drug Administration; a criminal justice bill aimed at easing inmates’ transition back into society; and a partial rollback of banking regulations imposed after the financial crisis.

As for his future, the speaker argued that a “divisive leadership election” would be only a distraction. Ryan became speaker in 2015 after he was drafted by his colleagues to succeed John Boehner, who resigned rather than face a coup attempt from conservatives. On Tuesday, a number of lawmakers expressed support for Ryan, saying no one could do the job any better.

“There is no benefit to Paul Ryan stepping aside,” said Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas. “That would only exacerbate the difficulties the Republican caucus is having.”

Ryan’s troubles began this month when Republican moderates who are pushing a bipartisan immigration bill announced they would use an unusual parliamentary procedure known as a discharge petition to circumvent the speaker and force a vote on four immigration measures.

Then, on Friday, House conservatives publicly embarrassed the speaker by sinking a multiyear farm bill in protest over his failure to schedule a vote on a hard-line immigration measure. The conservatives had demanded an immediate vote on the measure, known as the Goodlatte bill for its chief author, Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Republican leaders are now discussing votes on both immigration and the farm bill sometime in June.

Ryan, perhaps in a moment of understatement, said Tuesday that the farm bill’s defeat “was regretful.” Rep. Joe L. Barton, R-Texas, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, was more blunt.

“You can put lipstick on a pig,” Barton said, “but it’s still a pig, and getting beat on the farm bill last week was a pig.”

Another conservative salvo came Tuesday when more than a dozen lawmakers, including the leaders of the conservative Freedom Caucus, called on Ryan to allow a vote on a resolution condemning investigative actions by the Justice Department. They also called for the appointment of a second special counsel to investigate the investigators.

The lawmakers leveled a litany of lurid and largely unsubstantiated charges against the FBI and the Justice Department, arguing that officials had wrongly exonerated Hillary Clinton and then cooked up an investigation of Trump for political reasons.

“It’s the scandal of our time — the scandal, perhaps, of our lifetime,” said Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz.

Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., who was behind the resolution, began, though, with the newest charge: that the FBI had “planted” a mole “to infiltrate and surveil the campaign.”

The role of the informant, who made contact with three campaign associates but did not plant himself in the campaign, burst into the open because Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, has threatened to try to impeach the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, if he does not hand over related material.

Ryan has made no comment on the resolution, but he has repeatedly and publicly stood by Nunes and other Republican lawmakers demanding access to some of the department’s most delicate case files. He did so again Tuesday.

“I do think it’s appropriate, in the context of the legitimate Intelligence Committee investigation, that this information be provided to Congress,” Ryan told reporters when asked about Nunes’ latest request.

The immigration debate revolves around the fate of the so-called Dreamers, young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children, who were protected from deportation under an Obama-era initiative that Trump rescinded. The moderate Republicans who back the discharge petition support a bipartisan bill that would offer the Dreamers a path to citizenship. Conservatives deride that as amnesty.

“We clearly have members at opposite ends of our spectrum who are frustrated with one another,” Ryan said Tuesday.

Ryan has been struggling to reconcile those differences, so far with little result. As Rep. Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, a member of the Republican leadership, said: “There is no fairy dust in Congress. Therefore we have no immigration bill.” Depending on how many Democrats sign on, the discharge petition’s backers will need the signatures of roughly 25 Republicans to move forward. So far, 20 Republicans have signed, and more could do so this week. At least one, Rep. Warren Davidson of Ohio, suggested that Republican leaders have only themselves to blame for the moderates’ insurrection.

Davidson, a member of the Freedom Caucus, said Tuesday that it was “premature” to discuss the speaker’s race.

“I think the real question is, ‘Are we going to play offense while we’re on offense?” he said, adding that the discharge petition is “a product of not playing offense.”

Another Freedom Caucus member, Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania, was asked Monday evening whether it would be more difficult for Ryan to stay on as speaker until January if the discharge petition were successful.

“If we run an amnesty bill out of a Republican House,” he said, “I think all options are on the table.”