Paul D. Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, was elected speaker of the House Thursday and proceeded to declare the institution he now leads “broken” and in need of reform.
The problems Ryan identified had less to do with partisan gridlock between Republicans and Democrats and more to do with divisions within his own party stoked by difference over tactics and ideology.
Those fissures drove out former Speaker John A. Boehner, who bid a tearful farewell Thursday, and prompted Ryan to pledge to return some of the power amassed in recent decades by House leadership to the rank-and-file.
“We are not solving problems; we are adding to them,” he said in a short address after his election Thursday morning. “I am not interested in laying blame. We are not settling scores. We are wiping the slate clean. Neither the members nor the people are satisfied with how things are going. We need to make some changes, starting with how the House does business.”
There was early evidence that Ryan might be the unifying force most Republicans hoped he would be.
He won the support of all but nine of his Republican colleagues a day after 43 had voted for another candidate in a closed-door nomination vote.
Ryan won 236 votes Thursday, while Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.), who won a following among staunch conservatives for his procedural reform agenda, received nine votes. All but three Democrats, meanwhile, supported House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
Following the vote, Ryan began his remarks to the House with a call for unity — and not only among the divided Republican conference.
“Let’s pray for each other: Republicans for Democrats, and Democrats for Republicans,” he said. “And I don’t mean pray for a conversion. Pray for a deeper understanding.”
He nodded to demands of back-bench conservatives who felt marginalized by Boehner (R-Ohio), calling for committees to take the lead in writing major legislation: “We need to return to regular order,” he said, embracing a watchword of Boehner malcontents.
“We have nothing to fear from honest differences honestly stated,” Ryan added. “If you have ideas, let’s hear them. A greater clarity between us can lead to a greater charity among us.”
Ryan, who at 45 is the youngest speaker elected since 1869, took the oath of office from Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), 86, the longest-serving member of the House.
Looking on were his family, including his wife, Janna, and children Liza, 13, Charlie, 12, and Sam, 10. Also seated in the speaker’s box were former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who tapped Ryan as his running mate for his ill-fated 2012 presidential run, and current Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R), who employed Ryan as a legislative aide before he returned to Wisconsin in 1998 to run for the House.
Brownback said afterward that Ryan exemplifies the cerebral, “happy warrior” brand of conservatism laid out by longtime GOP congressman Jack Kemp — a political hero of Ryan’s. And Ryan, he said, will occupy a key role advocating for Republican priorities ahead of next year’s presidential election.
“He can help set that agenda, and he can set up the topics, that if you win the presidency in 2016, those will be topics that will then move, and that’s a very important spot to be in,” Brownback said.
Boehner, who cast the final vote for Ryan, bid farewell by saying he leaves the House as “the same regular guy that came here” from the Cincinnati suburbs 25 years ago. He recited a list of his accomplishments, including major spending cuts, ending earmarks and preserving the D.C. school voucher program.
“I leave with no regrets, no burdens,” he said.
Boehner also left Ryan with a fiscal agreement hashed out with President Obama that would increase government spending by $80 billion through 2017 and raised the federal debt limit — enraging hard-line conservatives but clearing major fiscal obstacles from Ryan’s path in his the first 16 months as speaker.
Most Webster backers — many of them members of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus — backed the party nominee after Ryan spent the past week reassuring them that they will play a more prominent role in lawmaking.
The nine lawmakers who stood by Webster on Thursday were Reps. Dave Brat (R-Va.), Curtis J. Clawson (R-Fla.), Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.), Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.), Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), Bill Posey (R-Fla.), Randy Weber (R-Tex.) and Ted Yoho (R-Fla.).
“I was voting my conscience,” Gohmert said afterward, explaining that he wished Ryan well but disagreed with him on key issues such as the 2008 financial bailout and immigration reform.
There are clear pitfalls ahead for Ryan. In the coming weeks, he will have to shepherd through a major spending bill ahead of a Dec. 11 deadline. While the budget deal passed Thursday eliminates the major points of contention with Obama, flare-ups over policy riders involving issues as such immigration and abortion could lead to a new round of shutdown threats.
And a major transportation bill also needs to get done in short order — legislation that is also tied up in a fierce internal GOP debate over renewing lending authority for the Export-Import Bank. Ryan supports shuttering the bank, but most House Republicans and almost all Democrats voted this week to continue it.
Webster, in an interview, said Ryan is “hoping he gets a semi-pass” on the spending bill “because it’s been sort of dumped on him.”
Asked how Ryan could handle those issues without alienating conservatives, Webster said, “Start today.”
“What’s been a major problem,” he continued, “is … you wait till the very end so there’s only one choice, and we can’t do that. And I don’t think he’s wanting to do that. I think he wants to say, let’s take up these important issues sooner so that we’re not pushed up against a deadline.”
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who abandoned his own hopes of becoming speaker earlier this month in the face of conservative opposition, said Ryan would be able to meet those challenges: “The future looks brighter,” he said Thursday. “Yeah, there’s work involed in that, but the hurdles are not as high as they were a week ago.”
“The whole conference is more united,” he added. “And when we’re united, we can accomplish big things.”
Paul Kane and Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.