WASHINGTON—House Republicans embraced a new leader Wednesday and swiftly consented to a major budget-and-debt deal to avert a federal financial crisis, highlights of a day of dramatic fresh starts at the Capitol after years of division and disarray.
Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice presidential candidate and a telegenic spokesman for conservative priorities, was nominated by his colleagues in a secret-ballot election to serve as speaker of the House, second in line to the presidency. The full House will confirm that choice on Thursday.
“This begins a new day in the House of Representatives,” Ryan, 45, said after the vote. “We are turning the page.”
Immediately after choosing Ryan to chart a new course for their fractured party, Republicans trooped onto the House floor to cast votes on a huge two-year budget deal struck in recent days between President Barack Obama and congressional leaders of both parties.
The agreement, approved 266-167, would raise the government’s borrowing limit through March of 2017, averting an unprecedented default just days away. It would also set the budget of the federal government for the next two years, lifting onerous spending caps and steering away from the brinkmanship and shutdown threats that have haunted Congress for years.
Most of the “no” votes were from Republicans, but 79 GOP lawmakers voted for approval.
“A solid piece of legislation,” declared outgoing Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, who played a key role in engineering the accord after announcing his resignation last month following a quarter-century in Congress and nearly five years in the speaker’s chair. Boehner was beset by intractable divisions between the party’s pragmatists and purists, but those will now be Ryan’s to resolve.
Ryan sounded an optimistic note.
“We are not going to have a House that looks like it looked the last two years,” he said. “We are going to move forward, we are going to unify. Our party has lost its vision, and we are going to replace it with a vision.”
Earlier, inside the ornate Ways and Means Committee room where the vote occurred, Ryan asked lawmakers to pray for him, and pray for each other.
He easily dispatched his sole opponent, Florida Rep. Daniel Webster, the choice of a group of hard-core conservatives, winning 200 votes to Webster’s 43. He still must prevail in a vote of the full House on Thursday, when Democrats will have a say, too, and will back the minority leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California.
Still, the only real suspense surrounds Ryan’s margin of victory, as he is certain to draw the support of the vast majority of Republicans, including some who supported Webster but pledged to vote for their party’s nominee on the House floor.
Wednesday’s budget bill makes good on Boehner’s promise to “clean the barn” for Ryan on the way out, removing the most contentious issues that would have confronted him immediately upon becoming speaker. Conservatives loudly protested the price tag and a secretive, back-room process, and farm-state Republicans raised alarms about cuts to federal crop insurance programs.
The accord also became a punching bag for GOP presidential candidates, including Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Rand Paul, all of whom denounced it ahead of a Wednesday night presidential debate.
But the House approved the legislation and sent it to the Senate anyway, relying on a majority of Democratic votes, a feature of a number of significant deals cut under Boehner’s leadership. Democrats supplied 187 of the “yes” votes, while 79 came from Republicans.
“The outgoing speaker of the House has partnered with Democrats and Senate leadership to craft a monstrosity of a budget deal,” one hardliner, Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, complained, calling on candidates for speaker to reject the bill.
Ryan did not oblige. He criticized the process used to reach the bill, saying that it “stinks,” but issued a statement announcing his support for the deal because it “will go a long way toward relieving the uncertainty hanging over us.”
Indeed Ryan could ask for no better parting gift from Boehner at a moment when GOP leaders are fretting about the deep Republican divisions on display in Congress and the presidential campaign, where outsider candidates are leading established politicians.
Dealing with the debt limit and winning a budget agreement would almost certainly have forced Ryan into the same types of compromises with Obama and the Democrats that conservatives routinely denounced in Boehner. Now he will have a freer hand, though he faces his own challenges, including the need to pass a package of spending bills by Dec. 11 to fill in the broad budget outlines in this week’s deal.
That exercise could bring its own mess of troubles, including fights over everything from Planned Parenthood to the environment as conservatives try to attach favored policy provisions to must-pass legislation. But Boehner got the toughest votes out of the way.
A reluctant candidate for speaker, Ryan was drafted by party leaders only after Boehner’s heir apparent, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, took himself out of the running. Ryan had preferred to stay as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, his dream job, and was also concerned about the impact on his wife and three school-age children in Janesville, Wisconsin.
Though he’s a 17-year House veteran, Ryan will be the youngest House speaker since Rep. James Blaine, R-Maine, who was 39 when he was speaker in 1869.
Some Democrats said Ryan is a Republican they can do business with. At the same time they pointed to strong policy differences as shown in a budget he produced in 2011 that contained plans to cut social programs as well as turn Medicare into a voucher-like program and Medicaid into block grants to states.
Said Pelosi: “We welcome the debate.”