In his six weeks as House speaker, Paul D. Ryan has started laying the groundwork for an ambitious party agenda and even his new beard is getting good reviews.
But the most significant test of his young speakership is just ahead: He must persuade a majority of his fellow House Republicans to join in the basic task of funding the federal government.
They have come to be known on Capitol Hill as the “hope yes, vote no” caucus — lawmakers who privately fear the repercussions of a federal shutdown or default but have been compelled to vote against compromise bills because of political pressure from the right.
“Too many of our members hope yes and vote no,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a moderate who is among the roughly 80 Republicans who have joined with Democrats to push through crucial spending bills this year. “That’s Paul Ryan’s challenge. How do we expand the governing wing of the Republican Party?”
Since regaining control of the House in 2011, GOP members have deserted their leaders on several high-stakes votes to set the federal budget, fund agencies and increase the debt limit. The dynamic came to a dramatic head earlier this year ahead of a Sept. 30 appropriations deadline, when then-Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio announced his resignation after it became clear that any deal would prompt an internal revolt.
With government funding set to expire Dec. 11, Ryan now faces a deadline of his own and fresh questions about whether he will be able to strike a deal with President Obama and congressional Democrats that will also be palatable to a majority of his 245 Republican colleagues.
Much attention has been lavished in recent months on the roughly 40 most conservative House members who helped prompt Boehner’s resignation, but the more crucial bloc for Ryan is the roughly 120 rank-and-file House conservatives who have not been sharply at odds with GOP leadership but also have felt free to abandon the spending deals those leaders have negotiated. Another 80 to 90 members — leadership members, moderates and appropriators — have tended to stay loyal to the speaker on key spending votes.
The phenomenon prompted an unusual missive from the Republicans’ chief vote counter last month, who told his whip team that too many Republican members are “falling into the pattern of voting no on tough bills while actually hoping the bill passes.”
Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) wrote that he had no quarrel with members who vote against bills they have genuine qualms about, but rather with those who vote against a bill while “know[ing] that the outcome will be even worse if the bill fails.”
Said Scalise, “My point is simple: if there are 150 Republicans who hope the bill passes, then there should be 150 Republicans who vote yes on final passage.”
There are encouraging signs for Ryan. For instance, unlike in September, few members of either party believe there is a significant risk of a government shutdown.
“There generally seems to be a feeling among rank-and-file members that they want Paul to get off to a good start, so he’s being given a lot more of the benefit of the doubt right now than Boehner did at the end of his term,” said Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.), an Appropriations Committee member.
At the same time the stakes have been heightened by Ryan’s public pledge to respect the bottom-up process of legislating by relevant committees and by private pledges he made to key lawmakers to respect the informal leadership rule of only advancing measures that have support from a majority of Republicans.
In other words, a spending bill that advances on mainly Democratic votes — like the Homeland Security appropriation that passed in March and the stopgap spending extension passed in September — could undermine Ryan’s claims of a new day in the House and once again antagonize the hard-line conservatives who chafed under Boehner.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior appropriator and leadership ally, called on members to put some “steel in their spine” and trust the leaders they elected.
“When our leaders in both houses negotiate a deal, the majority needs to be willing to support it,” he said. “If you think something is as good a deal as we’re going to get and ought to pass, then you ought to have the guts to vote for it.”
Cole said the failure of most Republicans to back the October deal on overall budget levels reduced GOP leverage in the current negotiation over how to spend that money: “You’re sitting across the table from Democrats who are saying, ‘Hey, we provided two out of every three votes to get the deal that makes this possible, and we’ll have to do it again.’”
The problem for Republican leaders is that few members of the “hope yes, vote no” caucus admit to thinking that way.
Several members who were in the GOP majorities that opposed Homeland Security funding in March, the September stopgap and the October budget deal all said they were genuinely opposed to those bills — even if they, too, doubt their colleagues’ intentions.
“Me personally, when I vote no, I mean no,” said Rep. James B. Renacci (R-Ohio), who voted no on those bills. “And for every bill that I vote no on, I can give you the reasons.”
Several top Republicans, including Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), pointed to Ryan’s embrace of “regular order” as one remedy for intraparty division. “When committees do more of the work, they have a vested interest, they have expertise, so I think you get a better product at the end of the day,” McCarthy said.
But Renacci, who cited process concerns in his opposition to previous bills, said he did not see a marked improvement in the process of putting together the new spending bill, which is being negotiated in private by senior Appropriations Committee members along with the leadership. “I think most people are voting no because they don’t like [stopgaps], they don’t like omnibuses, they don’t like no regular order,” he said.
For many Republicans, the end product of the spending negotiations will matter most — and that will be judged through riders dealing with controversial policy issues such as refugee policy, environmental regulations and financial-industry oversight.
“The Democrats want dollars; we want policy,” said Rep. Bill Flores (R-Tex.), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, “If you get enough [policy], you can find a way to get comfortable with the dollars.”
And for others, the decision on the spending bill will be entirely parochial. Rooney, for instance, said he’s almost exclusively concerned with funding he’s trying to secure for research into citrus greening disease — an emerging threat to Florida’s orange crop.
“All I ever do is worry about whether or not I can explain it at home,” he said. “If I can’t, then I usually don’t vote for it. . . . I can’t be like the typical politician and double-talk. I can’t pull that off.”
Kelsey Snell contributed to this report.