Why Paul Ryan took a pass on running for House majority leader


House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) resisted calls from his GOP colleagues to run for a House Republican leadership position following House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s (R-Va.) primary defeat last week. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)

Amid the jockeying that has been taking place on Capitol Hill following House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary defeat, it has been somewhat surprising that one of the GOP’s most famous names has gone largely unmentioned.

But that is because Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has quietly and firmly shut the door on any prospect of being part of the GOP’s elected House leadership team.

Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) called Ryan shortly after Cantor’s defeat last week and inquired whether the House Budget Committee chairman and 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee might be interested in being the next majority leader.

The answer? An emphatic no.

In an interview Monday, Ryan said he listened to a few private entreaties from Boehner and others, but declined from the start.

There's a House leadership shakeup after Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., lost his primary -- and with it, his seat in Congress. That leaves the majority leader position open, plus questions about who will step in as the Republican whip. But what do a majority leader and whip do, anyway? The Fix's Chris Cillizza has all you need to know. (Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

“I’ve had this question posed to me before, John included, and my answer has been consistent,” Ryan said. “There was a vacuum, but I know myself very well, and in my gut, I’m just not looking to be that guy. If I wanted to be in elected leadership, I would have run for it years ago.”

It is understandable that others still might want to see him there. Ryan is well regarded across the spectrum in the fractious House Republican Conference and would be a unifying figure — something he acknowledged is needed.

Among the party as a whole, Ryan enjoys a reputation for gravitas. “He is probably the most talented single person in the House,” said former speaker Newt Gingrich.

But his ambitions lie elsewhere. In the short term, he wants to become chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in the coming year. Over the longer haul, he may well make another bid for national office, perhaps for the top of the ticket in 2016.

“You never say never to a thing in the future,” he said. “We’ll cross bridges when we come to them, but my response about the leadership has always been the same.”

However, even as he has demurred making his own bid for a leadership post, Ryan said he has been active behind the scenes.

“I like to think I’ve been able to play a leadership role without being an elected leader,” he added. “There are plenty of ways to bring the team together, and I do my best to try to keep us together as a conference.”

He encouraged his friend Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) to consider jumping in.

“Jeb and I spoke quite a bit over the past week about our policy aspirations and ended up making the same decision,” he said. “It’s no secret he’s one of my best friends in Congress, and I think he’d be a great House leader, whenever it’s right for him.”

When Hensarling bowed out, Ryan endorsed Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the next in line for majority leader. McCarthy is widely expected to win the office Thursday, when House Republicans hold their leadership elections.

By virtue of having returned to the House after his 2012 vice presidential run, Ryan is in an unusual — perhaps unprecedented — spot.

Few House members have been tapped for a national ticket, and the most recent ones, 1964 Republican vice presidential nominee William E. Miller and 1984 Democratic running mate Geraldine Ferraro, did not return to their seats on Capitol Hill after they lost.

Nor is the House an obvious launching pad for any politician with national ambitions. James Garfield in 1880 was the only one who ever made the leap directly from congressman to president. At least one former Ways and Means chairman has been elected president, but William McKinley took the intermediate step of being elected governor of Ohio.

Still only 44, Ryan has many paths to choose from. But those who know him say that the House Budget chairman is far more comfortable with policymaking than he is with the constant tending of other members that is central to serving in a leadership role.

“If you win, you spend every day taking care of the people who put you there,” Gingrich said.

Ryan also noted that a leadership role would put an additional burden on his young family.

“Leadership jobs demand lots of extra travel that I don’t want to do,” he said. “I have a young family, and we live in Janesville, Wisconsin, and I spend all my non-session time there. That’s where I want to be, with my 9-, 11-, 12-year-olds at home.”

Even being vice president “would have been more family friendly,” he said.

Yet Ryan is intent upon remaining part of the conversation about his party’s future. During the weekend, he hobnobbed with his former running mate and big GOP donors at Mitt Romney’s annual gathering in Utah, which also drew a host of other figures who are being mentioned as possible 2016 contenders.

“It’s always melancholy when we see each other,” Ryan said of spending time with Romney.

Karen Tumulty is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where she received the 2013 Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting.
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