WASHINGTON—Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan says he’s got to have unity from divided House Republicans before he will serve as their speaker—a tall order as the split between GOP pragmatists and hardliners all but paralyzes Congress and roils the presidential race.
Ryan’s message to his colleagues: Embrace him as their consensus candidate by week’s end or he won’t seek the job, plunging the House into deeper chaos with deadlines on an unprecedented government default and the budget fast approaching.
It’s a big “if” for a House GOP that’s careened from one crisis to another in recent years, with a compromise-averse band of conservative hardliners forcing a partial government shutdown two years ago, ultimately driving current Speaker John Boehner to announce he’ll resign and then scaring off his No. 2.
Boehner is moving quickly to try to resolve the issue, telling Republicans Wednesday morning that the GOP will meet next Wednesday and vote on a candidate to replace him. The full House would then choose its new speaker on Thursday—if all goes according to plan.
Meanwhile, Ryan, the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, has been dragged into seeking a job he never wanted. As he announced late Tuesday that he would seek the speakership, Ryan made clear he would do so only with conditions. He wants the endorsement of the major caucuses of the House, including the hardline Freedom Caucus.
That’s the group whose threats against Boehner pushed him to announce he would resign by month’s end and forced Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to abruptly drop his campaign to replace him.
Members of the Freedom Caucus quickly expressed reservation about some of Ryan’s conditions for pursuing the job, including his insistence on cutting back on the responsibilities to spend time with his wife and three school-age kids.
“No other speaker candidate came in and said here’s the list of my demands, either meet those or I’m not going to do this,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas. “Speaker’s a big job. And it’s not a 9 to 5 job. So there are a lot of questions to be answered.”
“There is a plethora of candidates for speaker of the House out there who have the time necessary to do the job,” said Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama.
Boehner said he was fairly confident the various factions would coalesce around Ryan.
“I think Paul is going to get the support that he’s looking for,” the speaker told reporters. “He laid out a very clear vision of how he would run the speakership. I thought the members responded very well to it.”
Coming days will tell if Ryan can indeed win the support he needs, or become the latest victim of the GOP divide. Outsider candidates, especially Donald Trump, have shaken the GOP presidential campaign to the consternation of mainstream party leaders who fear the fighting could lead to a third straight Democratic White House administration.
“I came to the conclusion that this is a very dire moment, not just for Congress, not just for the Republican Party, but for our country. And I think our country is in desperate need of leadership,” Ryan said.
“What I told members is if you can agree to these requests and if I can truly be a unifying figure, then I will gladly serve, and if I am not unifying, that is fine as well—I will be happy to stay where I am.”
Ryan had avoided getting drawn into the speaker’s contest, saying he would prefer to stay on as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, which he’s described as his dream job.
But with chaos ahead and the prospect of even more of it if he passed on the job, Ryan reconsidered under pressure from party leaders. Congress is hurtling toward an early November deadline to raise the federal borrowing limit or invite a first-ever default, and a deadline to pass spending legislation or risk a government shutdown will follow in early December.
The 45-year-old Ryan gave his colleagues until Friday to express their support. Members of the Freedom Caucus said they would meet with Ryan later Wednesday, but for now were sticking with their endorsement of another candidate, Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida, a former speaker of the House in Florida who’s focused on “pushing down” on what he calls the “pyramid of power” in the House.
Webster and the other potential candidates, a dozen or so in all, lack Ryan’s stature and broad support and it’s not clear if any of them could gather the needed backing to become speaker.
“If Paul Ryan can’t get 218, no one can,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., citing the number of votes needed for a majority on the House floor.
Ryan laid out a number of conditions under which he would serve, aimed at defusing an atmosphere of constant chaos and crisis that has hung over the House as tea party-backed lawmakers pushed for confrontation with the White House and demanded changes that the strictures of divided government never could deliver.
He said he encourages changes to rules and procedures—something eagerly sought by members of the Freedom Caucus who claim they’ve been shut out of legislating in the House. But he said any such changes must be made as a team, with input from all. Ryan also sought a change in the process for a “motion to vacate the chair”—the procedure conservatives were threatening against Boehner, which would have resulted in a floor vote on his speakership and ultimately drove him to resign.
“He said he’s willing to take arrows in his chest, but not in his back,” said Rep. Peter King of New York. But several conservatives said they were particularly troubled by Ryan’s demand to change the motion to vacate, with some calling it a non-starter.