The mild-mannered Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan, who many Republicans want to become House Speaker, is privately issuing a blunt, strong message: if he were to take the job, fellow Republicans would have to trust his leadership and give him the space to operate as he saw fit.
Ryan allies say the congressman has leverage because many in the GOP view him as the only man who can truly unify the intensely-divided Republican House. And he is determined to use that leverage.
Ryan, according to allies, is no longer strongly opposed to becoming speaker of the House. He will consider taking the job if House Republicans, particularly the so-called Freedom Caucus of very conservative members, assure Ryan that he will be the true leader of House Republicans, able to set the party’s agenda in conjunction with other members and get the vast majority of them to back him on key votes.
Ryan does not want his tenure as speaker defined by protracted intra-party fights over extending the debt limit and funding the government, but instead wants to seek broader changes to tax policy and other programs. In short, Ryan does not want to be another John Boehner.
In Ryan’s view, the decision is not necessarily up to him: fellow Republicans will embrace his vision and he will run for speaker, or he will stand down.
And Ryan wants their commitments publicly. The Wisconsin Republican’s allies say he is pushing for close to 235 of the House’s 247 GOP members to vote for him in the speaker's election, which takes place on the floor of the House. Such a total would mean that the majority of Freedom Caucus has embraced Ryan as the party’s leader. (The Freedom Caucus is estimated at 40 members, but does not have an official membership list.)
“It’s straightforward. If Ryan takes the position, can he move the ball downfield? Can he use it to advance the ideas and philosophies he cares about, or is it more of a procedural job?" said one longtime Ryan friend who has talked to Ryan as the congressman considers running for speaker.
House Republicans returned on Monday from a week-long recess, still reeling from Boehner's resignation, the withdrawal of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy as a candidate to replace the Ohio Republican and a wide-open process in which people like Newt Gingrich and J.C. Watts have floated their names as candidates for the job. (Gingrich and Watts both left Congress more than a decade ago, but the House Speaker technically does not have to be a sitting member of Congress.)
Ryan is the leading choice, and Republicans say 218 GOP members are already almost certain to back him. A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 63 percent of Republicans would be "comfortable and positive" with the Wisconsin congressman as speaker, compared to 28 percent who said they would be "skeptical and uncertain" about him.
But Ryan wants clear support from the Freedom Caucus to take the job, and it’s not clear that will come. While some of the members of the group, such as Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio have spoken favorably of Ryan, other members, such as Iowa's Steve King, have said they are unwilling to back him.
And the stated policies of the Freedom Caucus are in direct conflict with Ryan’s approach. A questionnaire, written by some of the caucus’s members and then given to candidates for speaker, specifically asks a future speaker to attach welfare reform to any increase to the debt ceiling and to commit to not passing any bills that include funding for Planned Parenthood, the Iran nuclear deal, Obamacare or “unconstitutional amnesty.” (This Freedom Caucus view may be shared by many others in the GOP. According to the NBC/WSJ survey, 56 percent of Republicans want a speaker who will "stand up for principles," compared to 40 percent who want a leader who to "seek compromises.")
The Freedom Caucus, according to the questionnaire, which was obtained by Politico, also wants to weaken the ability of the speaker to pick who is on the steering committee of House Republicans. That committee determines who chairs key committees in the House.
If Ryan agreed to such provisions, he would be in effect guaranteeing to continue the fights over the debt limit and government spending. And by accepting the steering committee changes, he would have less power than Boehner in tapping committee chairs.
McCarthy balked at becoming speaker under these conditions.
“He will not walk into a speaker’s job that is weakened,” said one Ryan ally.
The consideration of Ryan as speaker has become part of the long-running debate between the more establishment wing of the Republican Party and its very conservative wing. The establishment sees the elevation of Ryan as a chance to wrestle control from Tea Party conservatives. It would give the establishment wing of the GOP control of both the House and Senate (Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell is also an establishment figure), even as establishment presidential candidates like Jeb Bush struggle against insurgents Ben Carson and Donald Trump.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Mitt Romney, two major establishment figures in the party, have publicly praised Ryan as he considers becoming speaker. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus has privately urged Ryan to run for the job.
But anti-establishment figures, such as radio host Laura Ingraham, are opposing Ryan, noting he has in the past supported more liberal policies like a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. A group of conservatives has already started a website FirePaulRyan.com.
"I like Paul Ryan personally, but I believe that if he were to be elected Speaker we will see a continuation of Boehner policies," said Paul Broun, a former Georgia congressman who is part of the group opposed to Ryan. “We must elect a Speaker that will stand-up to Obama and his radical policies that are hurting all Americans, especially the poor and senior citizens on limited incomes. We have to have leadership that is strong and truly conservative."
That Ryan’s conservatism is under question is surprising in many ways. When he was tapped as Romney’s running mate in 2012, Democrats cast him as a conservative ideologue. Ryan has been for years touting a budget plan that would severely curtail spending on Medicaid, food stamps and other programs for the poor and completely overhaul Medicare.
But Ryan, like Boehner, does not support the more aggressive tactics favored by the Freedom Caucus and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz: a government shutdown over Obamacare and using the debt ceiling votes to force other policy changes. Ryan was the lead negotiator for Republicans in a 2013 budget compromise with Democrats that included spending cuts but did not go far enough for many conservatives.