After Friday’s final House votes, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) cut a path through a pack of reporters down the Capitol steps and into a waiting car.
“Really, I don’t have anything more to add or say. Nothing’s changed. Right now, I’m just going to catch my flight so I can make it home for dinner,” said Ryan, 45, a father of three school-age children.
Ryan drove off, headed to Janesville, Wis., and, for the moment, away from the growing clamor among his Republican colleagues that he run for House speaker after two weeks of intense chaos since John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) announced he would step down from the job.
Earlier in the day, Republicans gathered in the Capitol to plot a way out of the morass. Ryan seemed to be at the center of nearly every potential scenario, but he did not address the meeting, which lasted more than 90 minutes. In fact, Ryan did not speak at all.
The only word came after the session when a Ryan aide issued a statement affirming that Ryan still was not ready to seek the speaker’s gavel that would put him second in the line of presidential succession.
“Chairman Ryan appreciates the support he’s getting from his colleagues, but is still not running for speaker,” said Brendan Buck, Ryan’s spokesman for the Ways and Means Committee, on which Ryan serves as chairman.
But in a GOP caucus notorious for its acrimony and divisiveness, Ryan has suddenly, but maybe unsurprisingly, become the top choice for speaker among people from nearly every corner of the caucus. He retains a high degree of respect from his role as the party’s vice-presidential nominee in 2012 and from having chaired two influential committees in Congress.
But Ryan has completely shrouded himself in reluctance. In recent days, he has moved from a firm “no” to privately reconsidering after a torrent of pleas from Boehner, Mitt Romney (his former running mate), and dozens of others. Despite those appeals, Ryan remains wary of the job, friends and associates said.
“There is a story in ‘The Book of Virtues’ called ‘Boy Wanted,’ ” said William J. Bennett, a former education secretary in the Reagan administration and a mentor to Ryan. “Boys want him; girls want him. That’s what’s happening to Paul. He also has a sense of duty to his family, to the things he knows, like the Ways and Means Committee.”
“What he’s evaluating is the moment,” Bennett said. “This balkanized and quarrelsome political group can’t agree on the time to have dinner, but it seems to agree on having Ryan.”
As the chaotic week came to an end, Ryan found himself under siege. He spent the past two days largely hunkered down in a ceremonial office steps from the House floor where he received phone calls of encouragement and where a few friends dropped by to take his temperature.
“I’m getting uneasy with the amount of pressure that’s being put on him. The expectation built in public is that he’s a miracle worker,” said former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber, a Ryan friend for decades. “Well, I admire Paul Ryan as much as anyone, but there are no miracle workers in this town.”
The concerns driving Ryan are both personal and political. His man-in-a-hurry nature, evident since he first won a House seat in 1998, has never been about climbing the leadership ladder in Congress. Whenever there has been an opening, he has passed, encouraging allies to jump in and focusing instead on drawing up tax and spending legislation in the committee rooms.
That career arc — a busy, committee-driven existence in the House after a stint on a presidential ticket — has allowed him to keep a relatively ordinary family life.
Those close to Ryan suggest that he is reluctant to give that up for a position, however prominent, that for the past 25 years has been a grind that usually ends in a whimper for its holders, either political embarrassment or personal scandal.
“Paul lost his father at a young age,” said Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.). “I think one of the most important things for him is to be a good father to his kids and a good husband to his wife. It’s a very Midwestern lifestyle.”
Still, despite his public denials of interest, Ryan is willing to consider taking the job, according to a dozen sources familiar with his thinking. But unlike the other aspirants to the job, who have done a round of forum pledges to various ideological factions inside the chamber, Ryan has no intention of taking the speaker’s gavel unless there is near-unity of the 247 Republicans, giving him the political capital necessary to lead the House.
Ryan is a conservative who grew up as an adviser to Jack Kemp, who died in 2009 and was a hero of the GOP’s tax-cut advocates. Despite the goodwill and stature that Ryan has built with the activists and hard-liners over the years by pushing sweeping fiscal changes and federal cuts, he is not sure they would be willing to listen to him or follow his agenda.
“I had dinner with Paul on Monday before the turmoil began, and we were talking about taxes,” said Stephen Moore, an economist at the Heritage Foundation. “At the end, we talked about the possibility of his becoming speaker. He said repeatedly that he doesn’t want to do it. He said he wants his legacy to be reforming entitlements.
“After we finished our wine and chicken wings, I thought, ‘This is someone who isn’t inclined to do it but understands he could have that legacy as speaker if the circumstances were right.’ That’s why it’s a live possibility.”
Ryan spent much of Friday on the floor huddling with members, hearing them out and closely watching the House GOP’s political drift. Allies said he appreciated the groundswell of enthusiasm but wants to see whether it would translate into a governable House conference.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) bowed out of the race for speaker after making a series of pitches to various blocs, some of which laid out a series of questions that were taken as demands for how the new speaker would behave. McCarthy seemed short of the magic number of 218 votes required to win the position in a floor vote because the conservative faction was threatening to withhold support.
The House began a 10-day break Friday, and Ryan intends to use that time to let his colleagues decide whether they’re ready to completely rally behind him. If there are still divisions and demands, he intends to happily remain chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, friends said.
He doesn’t appear eager to forsake what he has long called his dream job — overseeing almost all fiscal policy in Congress — or his Wisconsin life for a leadership post after watching Boehner and McCarthy get burned up by a caucus riven with tension.
“He’s going to baseball games, going swimming, going skiing,” Duffy said.
When the House business concluded Friday, Ryan made one pass through a crowd of reporters who have tracked him since McCarthy’s bombshell announcement Thursday. He dodged every question about his plans or his future.
Ryan did make one prediction: “The Packers are at home, and they’re going to beat the Rams,” he said.
Where will he watch the game?