Paul Ryan: I’m no John Boehner
WASHINGTON — Paul Ryan wants everyone to know he’s no John Boehner.
“I think I do it better,” the House speaker told CNN during an interview this week, adding that his leadership style is different than his predecessor, whose resignation last year shocked Washington. “Not to knock John, but I spend more time with all of our members on a continual basis.”
Ryan, the GOP’s vice presidential nominee in 2012, has won over conservatives by trying to showcase a more inclusive leadership style than Boehner. But he’s still beset by the same internal divisions that led to Boehner’s ouster — as his party struggles to push through a number of bills on pressing matters, ranging from the Puerto Rico debt crisis to the budget.
He is navigating those thorny challenges amid intense speculation that he could emerge from a contested convention this summer as a consensus presidential nominee. He sought to put those rumors to rest at a press conference last week, saying no one should be nominated who didn’t run this cycle. But he’s got problems of his own.
He holds weekly dinners with a rotating group of members and meets in the speaker’s office with representatives of the GOP’s ideological factions that are frequently at war. And the conservative House Freedom Caucus that helped drive out Boehner? They get regular facetime with Ryan — and his chief of staff, David Hoppe.
“I support Paul,” said Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the leader of the House Freedom Caucus when asked if he’d vote for Ryan again as speaker next year.
Ryan initially resisted taking the job. And while he says he likes it more than he thought, he’s finding it isn’t any picnic.
“At the end of the day, I don’t know that much substantive has come out of that,” Rep. John Fleming of Louisiana said of leadership-driven meetings aimed at searching for an Obamacare-replacement.
Ryan and his Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, pledged to get Congress back to “regular order” and show voters in an election year dominated by Donald Trump that the GOP can govern.
But without agreement from House conservatives on how much the federal government should spend, basic duties like annual spending bills are tripping up the speaker’s plans. He may be forced to set aside the annual appropriations process that allows Congress to add some restrictions to federal agencies’ budgets and instead pass a continuing resolution that extends current funding levels.
Or, he could risk a shutdown in October — on the eve of the elections.
Ryan told CNN that won’t happen.
“We won’t have a government shutdown,” he said.
Ryan added that while “not everyone agrees on everything,” the increased communication, he said, has improved morale in the chamber.
“We’re not focused on tearing each other apart. We don’t have the kind of schisms we had before. I think we’re actually getting some pretty big things done.” He cited the enactment under his tenure of a major transportation bill, education reform and bipartisan customs legislation.
Democrats complain that the GOP-led House is wasting time. This week they criticized the focus on partisan bills on the IRS that are unlikely to ever become law instead of approving money to deal with issues such as the Zika virus and the lead in the water in Flint, Michigan.
They’re especially fond of tweaking the speaker by quoting his own words when he served as Budget Chairman arguing it was “irresponsible” not to pass a budget.
Even though Ryan can’t corral his own members on a fiscal plan, he’s given members something they felt they didn’t have under Boehner — a voice.
House Budget Chairman Tom Price of Georgia, a close friend of Ryan’s who also served on Boehner’s leadership team, told CNN the difference between speakers is stark.
“This is so much more organic in terms of what is occurring in our conference right now and it’s what previously frustrated many members — they felt like decisions were made on high and that they were simply asked to salute,” Price told CNN.
Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, who led the ouster against Boehner, welcomes the changes that Ryan has enacted but said “a lot of people are wanting to judge the speaker based on the results.”
“But you can judge the process and he’s done a great job there,” Meadows said.
House Republicans also like that they see Ryan on television, and think he’s an effective spokesman for their party. On Sunday shows, talk radio and social media, they believe his explanations of what Congress is doing — and it’s responding to President Barack Obama — help give them cover back home.
Ryan’s fundraising drive
One of the conditions Ryan set before taking the speakership was maintaining a work-life balance, and keeping weekend time with his wife and three kids in Wisconsin.
“I have been really vigilant about that. Time management is a really big deal in this job,” Ryan says.
Rather than hit the golf course for a day-long fundraiser with a handful of big donors, as Boehner did, Ryan stacks his events in rapid-fire succession — allowing him to win over even his most ardent skeptics by helping them raise cash. (Ryan headlined a fundraiser in honor of Jordan’s birthday in February.)
But even without the weekend golf trips that made Boehner his party’s biggest fundraiser, Ryan has been able to break those records in his short time in the job. He’s pulled in more than $23 million since becoming speaker. The National Republican Congressional Committee announced it raised a record $26.8 million in the first quarter of 2016, and a senior NRCC aide said Ryan’s transfer of $11 million made that possible.
The speaker makes the most of “district work weeks” when House members travel home to raise money. During the last House recess, Ryan visited nine cities in five states. He also headlined an event for an endangered member of the House Freedom Caucus, Iowa Rep. Rod Blum. Since the beginning of the year, Ryan’s political team says he’s attended nearly 100 events on the road for his colleagues.
He still sleeps in his office when he’s in Washington. But he has fit in 40 events with GOP donors this year, sometimes making multiple appearances per day so that he can still fly home on Friday to make his kids’ sporting events.
Yet the pressure is still intense on the right. Ryan has a longshot primary challenger in Wisconsin from Paul Nehlen, a local businessman who told CNN he planned to invest “a substantial amount of my own money in this race.”
He argued that Ryan is out of step with grass-roots conservatives on trade deals and on his approach to immigration reform.
“I’m absolutely committed,” Nehlen said. “Paul Ryan put the gas in my tank and he keeps doing it. You see this trade deal — I’m fired up. My team is fired up. The district is fired up.”
But Ryan handily fended off his last party challenge in 2014 with a huge margin — and seems safe back home, for now.
2016 Agenda Project
A month after Ryan was elected speaker he announced his main priority was to create a detailed policy agenda, which he dubbed “Confident America” — an effort that could allow his colleagues to run on a platform separate from the presidential campaign. Yet it could be overshadowed entirely by his presidential candidates, particularly Trump, who sharply disagrees with the speaker on a handful of issues, including trade.
“We have to take these issues to the country. To give them a choice. To give our fellow citizens a choice so they get to decide,” Ryan said. “Do you want to go this way or that way? We have to offer a better way forward.”
He has briefed all three candidates — Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Governor John Kasich — about the project. On policy, Ryan and Trump are very far apart, especially on issues like promoting new trade deals.
But the speaker told CNN all three GOP candidates “seem very comfortable with where we’re going.”
“I had a great talk with Donald Trump about this for quite some time,” Ryan said.
But just like on the budget, there is tension inside the House Republican conference on just how detailed this agenda needs to be, and whether the House should actually vote on legislation to show that it can pass major items such as a new health care system.
Ryan brushes off the notion that House Republicans could lose their majority in 2016. Trump’s front-runner status is giving Democrats new hope that they can pick off candidates in battleground states. Even if they can’t retake the House they believe they can shrink the number of House GOP seats.
He told CNN he expects to remain in his job when the new Congress is sworn in next January.
“I want to take these ideas that we are developing and I want to execute in 2017. I want to put them in place in 2017. That’s the whole plan.”
Pushing back on Trump
The speaker’s balancing act comes at the same time he’s fending off attempts to draft him in the nasty 2016 presidential race that’s tearing his party apart. Ryan again repeated in the interview he’s not running this time. But pressed by CNN about whether he closed the door to a future bid, he signaled his refusal is limited to this year’s election.
“Well no. But I don’t think that far down the road. I made a decision in this cycle for 2016 not to run for President,” Ryan said, adding, “I really believe that if you are going to be the nominee you should run for the job.”
For now, Ryan views his role as being a party unifier and ideas man, brushing aside questions about fellow Republicans who plan to skip the convention to distance themselves from a controversial nominee and a potentially chaotic scene.
“I think that we should go,” he said. “This is our convention making our nominee, so I think everybody should participate.”