As soon as Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) shocked his fellow Republicans by withdrawing from the race for House speaker, Paul Ryan knew what was coming.
“I will not be a candidate,” the Wisconsin Republican said in a release issued less than 20 minutes after McCarthy’s stunning Thursday announcement, in an immediate bid to cut off any pressure for him to do a job he has repeatedly said he does not want.
But this time, it didn’t take. By mid-afternoon, outgoing speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) had spoken to Ryan at least twice, trying to convince the reluctant congressman that he was the only man who could save House Republicans from their self-created chaos.
By day’s end, after hunkering down for two hours in his ceremonial office a few steps from the House floor, after listening to pleas from friends to take the reins of the bitterly divided Republican caucus, he emerged, declining to explicitly state his plans.
“I’ve got no news for you guys,” Ryan told reporters, exiting the Capitol. “I’ve got nothing to add right now. . . . This is not the time or place, guys.”
Boehner and several other prominent Republicans are turning to their party’s 2012 vice-presidential nominee out of desperation, believing that he is the only member of the House with the stature to be speaker. Two other members, Reps. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), have announced their candidacies, but they are widely seen as too inexperienced or underwhelming to handle the job.
Although Ryan has the standing and experience — at 45, he has already been in office 17 years — it is not clear that he is suited to the role, either. He has never held an elected leadership position, never had to spend hours listening to every complaint possible from rank-and-file lawmakers. A self-styled policy wonk, Ryan prefers to spend time in a committee room cobbling together legislation than working the fundraising circuit in New York and Florida — a modern-day requirement of any House speaker.
Even if Ryan does win the job, some supporters question whether the most respected member of the House Republican Conference would be able to tame the divisions to push a unified agenda: The same 30 to 40 conservatives who have helped usher Boehner toward the door, and who appeared ready to deny McCarthy the job, plan to be just as hard on whoever the next speaker is when it comes to showdowns with President Obama and Democrats.
“He’s still going to have to deal with the same dynamic,” said Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), a leader of the small moderate wing and a backer of Ryan’s ascension. “That may be part of the reason why he’s denying this so far — he knows the dynamic.”
Yet by 6:15 p.m. Thursday, as McCarthy increased the pressure on Ryan to run for the job and the Capitol press corps camped outside his office, Ryan’s spokesman resorted to Twitter.
“Nothing has changed,” Brendan Buck tweeted.
But everything has changed, according to his colleagues.
As they voted on the House floor late Thursday, Ryan was besieged by his GOP colleagues. As the lawmakers huddled, Ryan aides canceled his fundraising and political events for the next
48 hours, a move interpreted by his friends as a signal that he had gone from a hard “no” to undecided after speaking with Boehner.
His party’s elder statesmen, long enamored with Ryan’s policy inclinations since his days as a disciple of Jack Kemp, said he needed to answer the call. But that doesn’t mean the door is shut.
“Knowing him, if it becomes clear to him, as it is to so many others, that he’s first among peers, he may do it,” William J. Bennett, an education secretary in the Reagan administration and a close friend of Ryan, said in an interview Thursday.
The situation is more dire than the one Ryan confronted two weeks ago when Boehner, under intense pressure from the right flank, shocked the House Republican Conference by announcing his plan to resign Oct. 30, setting
Oct. 29 as the original date for a full vote of the House on his successor.
Walking out of that Sept. 25 meeting, Ryan said then — and has consistently repeated — that he did not want the job and that it would be a terrible one for a man with three school-age children living in Janesville, Wis., 75 miles southwest of Milwaukee.
His long game, according to those close to him, is not rising up in the House. He has been touted as a potential treasury secretary in a GOP administration. He declined to run for president this time, but he still has a couple of decades ahead of him.
That future could crumble if he listens to his colleagues. Not since Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) left as speaker in 1986 has anyone retired from that job in good standing. Today’s House is more rife with pitfalls than it was even a decade ago.
Many of his colleagues, such Rep. Bill Flores (R-Tex.), head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, were calling on him Thursday to gamble his future to meet the present need.
“I would say, unequivocally, if I could choose the perfect person to be speaker, today, for this conference, it would be Paul Ryan,” Flores said.
Karoun Demirjian, Kelsey Snell and David Weigel contributed to this report.