House Speaker Paul D. Ryan is taking the unusual step of rolling out a policy agenda for his Republican House members to run on in November — one separate from the bare-bones proposals offered by presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Ryan (R-Wis.) believes that by giving his rank and file substantive proposals on which to campaign, he can better help Republicans hold on to the House majority, ensuring that he remains speaker in 2017. His proposals, developed in consultation with Republican lawmakers, are also intended to influence Trump by handing him a governing agenda should he win the White House in November.
But the speaker’s move was overshadowed by the chaotic sit-in by Democratic lawmakers on the House floor, aimed at forcing a vote on gun-control measures. The sit-in, led by civil rights hero Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and others, began late Wednesday morning and was still going on early Thursday morning.
Ryan entered the chamber around 10 p.m. to hold an unrelated vote and was met with Democrats singing a version of “We Shall Overcome.” He quickly gaveled the chamber into recess, while Lewis and other Democrats addressed cheering supporters outside the Capitol. The chaos, unparalleled in recent House history, demonstrates just how difficult it is to control the House even when you are in the majority.
Earlier Wednesday, Ryan introduced the health-care plank of his six-part agenda, which would replace the Affordable Care Act. It represents the most ambitious effort from a House speaker to set a Republican agenda since Newt Gingrich promulgated the “Contract With America” before the 1994 elections.
It is also a rare move for a legislative leader to direct his party’s message in a presidential campaign year, just weeks before the party meets to choose its presidential nominee. Traditionally, down-ballot candidates show considerable deference to the nominee’s message.
“The way I see it, if we don’t like the direction the country is going — and we don’t — then we have an obligation, a duty to offer an alternative,” Ryan said Wednesday about the health-care proposal, speaking at the American Enterprise Institute. “It is our duty to offer a better way, and that’s what this is.”
The problem for the speaker is that it is unclear whether his agenda will resonate with Republican voters. Ryan is focusing on such pillars of conservative orthodoxy as replacing the Affordable Care Act and restructuring the tax code, while Trump resoundingly won the Republican primaries by stressing much different issues. He effectively tapped into public resentment over immigration, economic globalization and national security threats.
Among the proposals in the far-reaching agenda are measures including imposing new work requirements on recipients of federal aid and rolling back labor and environmental regulations on businesses. The national security plan includes strategies to strengthen border security and counterterrorism. The Constitution portion seeks to rein in executive power and restore Congress’s “power of the purse.”
Ryan declared his intention to pursue a high-minded approach in his first address after becoming speaker in October: “We have nothing to fear from honest differences honestly stated. If you have ideas, let’s hear them. I believe a greater clarity between us can lead to a greater charity among us.”
But disarray on the House floor Wednesday as Democrats staged a sit-in to demand votes on gun-control proposals illustrated the difficulty of running the House on a daily basis, let alone passing sweeping proposals. House Democrats took turns telling stories about gun violence and slammed Republicans for failing to hold any gun votes since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in 2012.
Ryan derided the maneuver as a publicity stunt in an interview Wednesday night with CNN.
“This isn’t trying to come up with a solution to a problem; this is trying to get attention,” he said.
Democrats have made it clear that they will do everything they can to make November’s election a referendum on Trump and to highlight hot-button national issues where they believe public opinion is on their side.
Meredith Kelly, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Ryan’s efforts are “futile.”
“This election is about Donald Trump, period,” she said. “His provocative comments keep him front and center with voters on a daily basis, and the policies and positions behind his rhetoric will define the Republican brand.”
The degree to which Republicans are willing and able to unify behind the agenda also remains in question. Talk of policy nitty-gritty has remained far afield from the presidential race, where the few specific policies Trump has embraced — halting the immigration of Muslims, clamping down on foreign trade, building a Mexican border wall — have vexed Ryan and other GOP leaders.
Republicans crafted their agenda well aware that it could be at odds with their presumptive presidential nominee. Many said the point was to give the House more power in a year where the chaos of the GOP primary dominated the news.
“Nobody can predict what our nominee is going to do now,” Rep. Dennis A. Ross (R-Fla.) said. “I think the sooner we can set the agenda, the better off we can be to overcome whatever the differences are.”
But Trump’s ascension has shown that those differences could be gaping. Ryan has endorsed Trump, but he has continued to regularly criticize him for his remarks.
Trump, in turn, has made little mention of the House Republican agenda, and he recently urged congressional leaders who disagree with him to “just be quiet.”
Ryan’s quest to set a party agenda is at least partially inspired by the House leaders of the early 1980s — including Ryan mentor Jack Kemp, a longtime New York congressman — who set out to turn Congress into an ideas factory for President Ronald Reagan.
Kemp and Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, who then served as House GOP whip, pushed to shape the party’s agenda throughout the 1980 presidential race — advocating for the tax and entitlement reforms that became the foundation for Reaganomics.
“When Ronald Reagan came in, they turned to Trent Lott and said, ‘This is great — this is a good starting point for us to go with a legislative framework,’” said Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), an early Trump endorser.
But it’s unclear whether Trump will embrace the House GOP proposals, which are mainly familiar fare for followers of conservative think tanks.
Earlier this year, Ryan convened six task forces, led by the chairmen of the standing House committees, to develop the agenda, aiming to provide specific policies on key issues.
The process also helped Ryan manage the internal politics of his conference by giving an outlet to rank-and-file members who have tended to chafe at leadership — no small task, given the departure of his predecessor, John A. Boehner, amid an internal revolt.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, in April called the process “very useful.” “It’s saying, ‘If you put Republicans in control of the government, this is where we need to go,’ ” he said.
The poverty plank seeks to expand eligibility requirements for those receiving federal benefits, to give states a stronger hand in administering those benefits and to crack down on misuse or fraud in existing programs.
A 57-page proposal aims to dramatically scale back nearly every regulation that President Obama has introduced while in office. It takes aim at the Clean Power Plan and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill and seeks to repeal “all climate-change regulations under the Clean Air Act.”
The long-awaited GOP health-care alternative discards the mandates, tax penalties and coverage standards that Republican lawmakers have long derided. In their place, Republicans have proposed a series of refundable tax credits and benefits intended to encourage the purchase of private insurance.
That proposal does not include price tags. Nor does it estimate costs or how it would affect the number of insured Americans.