For House conservatives, Paul Ryan’s speakership begins now.
Members of the House Freedom Caucus were not happy with how 2015 ended, watching Congress pass the type of massive year-end spending and tax bill they have railed against in the past. But they gave Ryan a pass for helping usher it into law, arguing he was simply cleaning up what his predecessor John A. Boehner left on the speaker’s plate when the Wisconsin Republican took the gavel in October.
But now the group of roughly 40 hard-line conservatives wants Ryan to push an agenda to their liking, which includes a 2016 wish list full of potential political landmines for the new speaker.
They want the Ryan-led House to vote before the year is out on the 12 individual appropriations bills one by one, comprehensive tax reform, reducing the cost of entitlement programs and a replacement plan for Obamacare.
“Oh yeah, there’s always a honeymoon period,” said Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.). “The expectation now is to follow through with what he said he is going to do. Bottom up, grassroots movement of getting member initiative.”
Ryan has promised to put forward a set of policy ideas that will allow Republicans to draw a stark contrast with President Obama and Democrats, but he has yet to detail what that means, saying it will be up to the entire House GOP conference to make that decision.
“That’s the whole purpose of having a bottom-up organic process in Congress, not a top-down leadership,” Ryan said at a news conference Thursday. “I’m decentralizing power of this place. And when you decentralize power, you have a group decide these things.”
House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said voters expect Congress to do more than just talk about issues this year.
“The three areas that [Ryan] has focused on [are], real tax reform… real welfare reform… incentivizing work and our alternative to Obamacare.” Jordan said. “We’ve been talking about things for a while and I think our voters expect us to actually put the bill forward and pass the legislation.”
Freedom Caucus member Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) said he expects the House this year to vote to cut off funding for women’s health group Planned Parenthood in an upcoming spending bill, overhaul of the tax code, change welfare programs and complete consideration of each of the annual appropriations bills, including allowing votes on amendments during floor consideration.
“He needs to start [the appropriations process] early and he needs to finish,” Huelskamp said.
Ryan said Thursday it is possible the House could vote on all elements conservatives covet, but reiterated his warning that there is virtually no way President Obama will sign on to their agenda.
“You think Barack Obama is going to sign a bill repealing Obamacare?,” he said.
Ryan stopped short of promising votes or providing specific details on his upcoming agenda.
“We know that we are going to have to go to the American people with a mandate, with an agenda,” Ryan said. “The details of how this alternative gets rolled out is not as important as offering people a real, clear and compelling choice in 2016 so they can choose what kind of America they want to have tomorrow.”
But simply offering an agenda may not be enough to satisfy conservatives who want action and feel emboldened by a powerful anti-establishment fervor in the Republican Party that has been evident in the continued strong showing of presidential candidate Donald Trump. Yoho said conservatives believe Ryan plans to make good on his promises and Freedom Caucus members will push to keep the new speaker on track.
“I see Paul as someone who has been here for 17 years, he’s been kind of entrapped by the bubble,” Yoho said. “I look forward to being an outside influence that can say we can do this, we can change this.”
The conservative wish list would be daunting for a speaker to tackle in any year, but Congress is scheduled to be in session just 111 days in 2016. Some of the proposals could also force members, particularly those from more moderate districts, to take politically uncomfortable votes.
While ideas like rewriting the tax code or reducing the cost of government may appeal to a large number of voters, turning them into legislation would almost certainly require lawmakers to eliminate or reduce popular tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction and popular benefit programs like Social Security.
Part of the Ryan agenda conservatives hold most dear is his pledge to allow rank-and-file members to help craft legislation by having it move through the committee process and then allowing for amendment votes when the bill is brought to the floor.
“Regular order isn’t just letting the committee chairman decide everything, it’s bringing bills to the floor with amendments,” Huleskamp said.
But the once powerful conservative bloc may be running out of ways to impose its will on the rest of their Republican colleagues.
After helping force Boehner’s resignation, the caucus reached a kind of détente with Ryan as he finished negotiations on the year-end spending deal. In the roughly two months that Ryan has held the job, tensions within the House Republican Conference have cooled and the leverage the Freedom Caucus once held appears to be waning.
“We achieved a lot more than we thought we would and a lot faster,” said caucus member Rep. John Flemming, (R-La.). “We don’t have quite as many obstacles and places to go.”