House Speaker Paul D. Ryan is on the verge of a reckoning with House conservatives that threatens to end his speakership and extinguish his future as a national political leader.
The intraparty fight is set to begin in the days after the Nov. 8 election, when Ryan (R-Wis.) will be under immediate pressure from approximately 40 hard-line House conservatives frustrated with his handling of spending fights and his shifting position on GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump. The conservatives are eyeing a November leadership election and December spending deadline to determine how Ryan can lead Republicans — or if he can lead them at all.
Conservatives have no plans to compromise next year with Hillary Clinton if she wins the White House and Democrats capture the Senate. They are pushing Ryan to hold the line on spending and other matters, even if it means continued partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill. Some members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus have crafted a list of demands — including deep spending cuts, changes to House rules and a promise to vote only on bills that have majority Republican backing — in exchange for their support.
“If the speaker can’t answer yes to those on paper, I’m going to someone who can,” said Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.). “From now on it needs to be on paper, in writing, with a blood oath of some sort pledging your house and mortgage on the line, too.”
Meanwhile, some mainstream conservatives who constitute the bulk of the House GOP — a group that has largely been pleased with Ryan — are starting to openly contemplate whether he will want to continue as speaker.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee and an adviser to GOP leaders, said his “operating assumption” is that Ryan will run again for speaker. “But you’re foolish not to think through what are the alternatives if something like that didn’t happen,” he said. “It’s not been an easy job, and working with a President-elect Clinton is going to be pretty difficult going forward.”
A challenge to Ryan would resound far beyond Capitol Hill, with the Wisconsin Republican as a proxy for the pre-Trump GOP and its embrace of conservative orthodoxy on free trade, entitlements and regulatory policy. It would take place against a backdrop of what is expected to be intense soul-searching by a Republican Party torn apart at the seams by Trump’s candidacy.
Many conservatives are frustrated with Ryan’s approach to Trump — including his waffling on whether to endorse him, his denunciation of some of Trump’s more controversial statements and Ryan’s announcement that he wouldn’t defend or campaign with his party’s nominee after 2005 comments Trump made about groping women came to light. Several members said they understand that Ryan may object to elements of Trump’s personal life but they want the speaker to more enthusiastically back the GOP nominee based on Trump’s policies.
“I don’t think [Trump’s behavior] excuses any leader from recognizing the vital issues in our country,” said Freedom Caucus member Trent Franks (R-Ariz.). “We’re not choosing a personality for president — we are choosing a president based on policies and the direction of the party.”
Conservatives stand to exert even greater control over the House GOP conference if Clinton wins in November. Republicans hold 246 House seats, but party leaders are preparing to lose more than a dozen of those, according to several aides. If the GOP ranks fall to 230, it would take less than a third of the 40-member Freedom Caucus to end Ryan’s speakership.
Challenging Ryan has been floated by several members of the Freedom Caucus, including Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), who started the campaign to oust then-Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) last year.
“I do think that there will be real discussions after November 8th on who our leadership will be and what that will look like going forward,” Meadows said in a recent interview on WAAV radio in his home state.
And Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), also of the Freedom Caucus, conditioned his support for Ryan this month on the speaker’s support for Trump.
Given the stakes of this election, if Paul Ryan isn't for Trump, then I'm not for Paul Ryan.
— Jim Bridenstine (@RepJBridenstine) October 12, 2016
As for Trump, aides have floated rumors that they plan to “take down” Ryan after the election, a feat made much easier if Trump decides to personally intervene.
Republican strategist Frank Luntz said Trump has a direct line to tens of millions of backers via social media: “If he tweets, ‘Call your congressman and tell [them] not to support Ryan,’ that could be the end of the GOP. And I think it is possible that he could do it.”
“Nobody has the communications and the intellect and the principles and the family life of Paul Ryan — he has everything,” Luntz added. “And if he is destroyed, that tells me that the Republican Party will be destroyed.”
The election results will determine the depth of Ryan’s vulnerability. If Trump rallies to beat Clinton, the intraparty clash could quickly recede. If Clinton wins the solid victory indicated by recent polls, Ryan is likely to be leading a smaller House majority — one where the hard-liners will gain greater leverage within his conference.
Cole said that he saw little on Clinton’s campaign agenda that is likely to win significant Republican support and that the next speaker is likely to spend much of his energy forging compromises with Democrats on must-pass spending deals and debt-limit extensions — a tricky job that requires persuading a majority of Republicans to join with Democrats.
“The real question is, does Ryan want to do that?” Cole said. “If he chooses not to, is there anybody else in the conference that can?”
Ryan plans to run again for speaker, according to several aides. But some Republicans privately wonder whether he is willing to withstand a prolonged fight for the job that leaves him in the same compromised position Boehner was in.
The 2012 vice-presidential nominee was reluctant to run for speaker when the same group of conservatives forced Boehner to forfeit the gavel in September 2015. Ryan worried he was tackling the impossible job of overseeing a party in chaos. Members of his inner circle fretted that signing up to govern a House whose distinguishing feature has been GOP squabbles could threaten his future political ambitions.
A big problem for naysayers is there is no obvious choice to replace him. The next ranking Republican, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), wanted the job after Boehner stepped down but dropped out of the race after he suggested the Benghazi investigation was overtly political. Others have floated Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Tex.) as potential speaker candidates.
Franks said he plans to support Ryan, calling him a good man with good intentions in a terrible situation — that is, dealing with a Democratic president and with a Senate that has blocked conservative House bills.
Ryan’s test will begin when lawmakers return to Washington on Nov. 14 and end with a formal vote in January. Republicans typically select their leaders in a closed-door party caucus held the week after the election. But conservatives began circulating a letter last week calling for a delay in leadership elections to give members more time to decide whether to support Ryan or to seek another option. Ryan has brushed off talk of a delay, which would also give conservatives time to stoke anger among Republicans in the event that Trump loses.
Ryan would probably survive that initial leadership election even if the vote were delayed. He needs a simple majority of Republicans to approve him as their choice for speaker, and he can easily count on the vast majority of rank-and-file members, as well as some hard-liners.
The bigger hurdle would be the formal floor vote in January, in which he needs at least 218 votes to remain speaker. A small group of conservatives could easily take advantage of a smaller GOP majority to deny Ryan the speakership.
Between the two votes, Ryan will have to negotiate with the Obama administration and congressional Democrats to keep the government operating past Dec. 7 — a process likely to result in the sort of compromise that has stoked conservatives’ discontent in the past.
“There’s a great deal of frustration among House Republicans that we come up on the short end of the stick on these lame ducks,” said Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), a freshman who is seeking to lead the Republican Study Committee, a conservative group seen as less strident than the Freedom Caucus.
“I respect and appreciate Speaker Ryan . . . but we tend to lose more than we gain during these times,” Walker said. “So I’m hoping we’re willing to hold the line on some of these issues.”
Ryan is widely liked and supported outside the relatively small Freedom Caucus circle. He has developed close relationships in his 17 years in the House, and even those members who oppose him often compliment him for his intellect, his good intentions and his deep understanding of budget policy.
“It’s not about Paul Ryan at all,” Brat said. “Can I get along with him? Sure. [He has to] pivot, listen to the American people, do what Paul Ryan came in on, pass the Ryan budget, and we’re in a gold mine.”
The speaker has also gone to great lengths to personally campaign for other Republicans and shore up his majority.
Ryan has made more than 50 personal appearances at campaign events for members, not including guest appearances. Ryan’s leadership PAC cut nearly 170 checks to members, totaling nearly $900,000 in the first three quarters of the year — and he made more than $35 million in direct transfers to the House Republican campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee.
That kind of support can go a long way in Washington. But many Republicans worry that Ryan’s fate may be entirely in Trump’s hands. The volatile GOP nominee attacked Ryan on Twitter earlier this month after the speaker announced he would no longer campaign for Trump.
“Disloyal R’s are far more difficult than Crooked Hillary. They come at you from all sides. They don’t know how to win — I will teach them!” Trump said in a tweet that was retweeted or liked by more than 70,000 people.