Donald Trump’s deal with Democrats last week — the latest setback for House Republicans in a year filled with disappointment — has opened a new rift within the GOP Conference over whether their president or their speaker is to blame.
Some House conservatives have begun questioning Paul Ryan’s leadership after Republicans were forced to swallow a vote to increase the debt ceiling without corresponding spending cuts. Freedom Caucus leaders, already upset that Congress wasted months on the failed bid to repeal Obamacare, cornered Ryan (R-Wis.) last Wednesday to tell him he needed to change his approach.
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Some of them believe Ryan should have done more to sell Trump on a conservative alternative to the Democrats’ offer.
“When you fail to prepare, you typically don’t get the best outcome and you don’t have the best choices at decision-making time — and that’s exactly what played out,” Freedom Caucus leader Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said. “We’ve been very clear that we should have put together a debt ceiling plan.”
Yet that appears to be the minority view within the conference. Trump’s surprise partnership with Democrats may have bolstered, at least temporarily, Ryan’s standing among rank-and-file Republicans. Many lawmakers rallied behind the speaker and directed their anger at the White House over the debt deal. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and budget director Mick Mulvaney were booed when they came to Capitol Hill to plead with Republicans to support the deal.
“There’s a lot of disappointment in the decision that the president made, and the way our leadership was treated — that’s a sore spot,” said Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.).
Added Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.): “The leadership is doing the best that they possibly can in a very unpredictable environment. … We’re one-third of the government.”
The dissension is cresting just as Republicans turn to tax reform — arguably a taller task than repealing Obamacare — and face a crush of year-end deadlines. Navigating that schedule on the heels of Trump’s defiance of GOP leaders will make for an excruciating next few months for the speaker.
While most Republicans say Ryan’s hold on his post is secure, it’s unclear how long he can maintain his grip in the age of Trump. The GOP’s right flank is starting to agitate against Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). And the speaker is caught in an often-impossible position between a fractious conference and an unpredictable president.
For now, most Republicans say this isn’t a repeat of John Boehner’s ill-fated speakership. Boehner stepped down amid an uprising by the right in 2015.
Ryan appeared to receive a boost from a pair of Washington Post stories last week suggesting Freedom Caucus leaders were conspiring with allies at Breitbart News to find a replacement for Ryan. Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) denied the reports.
“If you think that you can do a better job, man up and put your name on the ballot and say that you’re running and challenge the speaker — rather than just being an agitator,” said Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), a Ryan ally. “I get so tired of these guys that play Monday-morning quarterback with Paul.”
In a statement for this story, Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said: “The speaker and this conference are concerned only about one thing: working together to advance our agenda.”
Still, discontentment inside the GOP Conference is building.
Even before Trump struck his deal with Pelosi and Schumer, conservatives were seething over news that House leaders intended to attach a long-term “clean” debt ceiling increase to a relief package for Hurricane Harvey victims.
“That’d be a sign of poor leadership if they did that,” said Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), a Freedom Caucus member. “Because they’re passing a garbage bill and playing politics with people’s lives — and that’s not the way we ought to legislate.”
It wasn’t just Freedom Caucus members who were stung by the exclusion of spending cuts from the debt ceiling measure. A number of House deputy whips told POLITICO they also didn’t want to vote for a “clean” debt ceiling increase; two of them suggested that such a vote could jeopardize Ryan’s job security.
Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.) has also began openly discussing his desire to see Ryan take a harder line against the Senate; House lawmakers have long been frustrated that the more centrist chamber dictates the terms of Republican legislation. Asked Friday whether he felt Ryan was listening to that suggestion, Walker said, “We’re heading in the wrong direction.”
Still, though “there are more and more conversations that people are frustrated,” Walker said he isn’t contemplating a change in leadership. He called Ryan “one of the greatest human beings you’ll ever meet.”
There “has been some talk of, ‘Is he the guy?’” Walker said. “He’s still the guy.”
The night that Jordan and Meadows pulled Ryan into a room off the House floor to vent their anger, The Washington Post reported that they’d met with Breitbart chief Steve Bannon and were considering alternatives to Ryan. But Ryan still appears to have the confidence of a healthy majority of the conference.
“We’re talking about a minority, hopefully that’s going to be isolated more and more,” Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said of the Ryan dissenters.
Even some Freedom Caucus members expressed discomfort with the criticism of Ryan’s speakership. In an interview off the floor Thursday, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said he was “not unhappy with Paul” and that “he’s got a tough job.” Ryan “has the confidence of almost everybody in the conference,” Barton added.
“Listen, it’s ridiculous to even have this conversation,” he said. “Paul Ryan is going to be speaker until he doesn’t want to be speaker or until the Democrats take over the House.”
Asked about Meadows and Jordan, Barton said: “Those are my friends. … They’re good people. Their heart is in the right place. But none of them wants to be speaker, to my knowledge, and even if they did, the time to do that is after the next general election.”
Its unclear, however, for how long most of the conference will blame Trump or the Senate instead of their own leaders. On Friday, Meadows, while refuting suggestions he is fomenting opposition to Ryan, declined to vouch for the speaker’s effectiveness.
“I think that, obviously, results speak for themselves,” he said. “That’s what we’re waiting on.”
John Bresnahan contributed to this report.