WASHINGTON – When Paul Ryan took the gavel as speaker of the House of Representatives Thursday, his thoughts flashed the moment when Harry S. Truman was unexpectedly thrust into power.
“The day after Franklin Roosevelt died and Truman became president, he told a group of reporters: ‘If you ever pray, pray for me now … When they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me,’ ” Ryan told a House chamber that had just voted him the 54th individual to be speaker in U.S. history. “We should all feel that way.”
Prayers may be needed.
Ryan, at 45 the youngest House speaker since 1869, takes over a Republican-controlled House from John Boehner, R-Ohio, who presided over a dysfunctional chamber until a group of unhappy hard-line conservatives helped nudge him into retirement.
Ryan’s been elected to be the savior of a House Republican conference at war with itself – a healer who can close wounds ripped open by disagreements between hard-liners who agitated for a more aggressive GOP leadership and their so-called establishment brethren who view deals with Democrats and President Barack Obama as part of their job.
Although personally liked on both sides of the aisle, Ryan isn’t likely to have much of a honeymoon as speaker. Boehner said he wanted to “clean the barn up” legislatively to give his successor an easier time than he had. But there’s still plenty of stuff in there that could put Ryan knee-deep in early challenges.
“Paul Ryan is riding on the back of a tiger,” said Robert Bixby, executive director the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan government fiscal watchdog group.
“The basic problem hasn’t gone away, that you’ve got a faction of the House that is relatively sizable that really don’t want compromises. They want a confrontation approach.”
He must quickly show hard-line conservatives that his speakership will be different from Boehner’s.
Members of the House Freedom Caucus – about 40 conservative Republicans who helped drive out Boehner and prompted House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to abruptly quit the speaker’s race – and other lawmakers have demanded changes in House rules in an effort to decentralize power from the speaker. He promised before Thursday’s vote to make those changes by January.
Some Republicans apparently still had concerns. When they voted behind closed doors Wednesday to choose their nominee for speaker, 43 voted for Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., who was endorsed by the Freedom Caucus before Ryan formally entered the race.
Webster received nine votes for speaker in the full House Thursday.
Ryan reiterated his call for so-called regular order in the House, a process in which bills and ideas are debated, crafted and voted on in committees before going to the House floor, instead of measures being created in leadership offices.
“We need to let every member contribute – not once they have earned their stripes, but right now,” Ryan said Thursday. “The committees should take the lead in drafting all major legislation. If you know the issue, you should write the bill.”
Legislatively, Ryan and Congress are facing a deadline on highway funding. The House is expected to vote as early as next week on a $325 billion, six-year bill that authorizes payments to states for their road, bridge and transit projects, the first such legislation in six years.
Currently, however, the bill has guaranteed funding for only three of those years, and it’s up to the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, Ryan’s old panel, to fill in the rest. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, is widely expected to take over for Ryan as Ways and Means chairman.
The House and Senate will then need to reconcile their bills – the Senate passed its own six-year transportation bill in July, also not fully funded – and get a final version to Obama’s desk by Nov. 20.
Boehner gave Ryan some breathing room when the congressional leadership from both parties forged a budget deal with the White House that would increase federal spending by $80 billion over the next two years and raise the nation’s debt ceiling through 2017.
Although the House approved the deal on a 266-167 vote Wednesday, there were hard feelings that could lead to blow-back for Ryan. Hard-liners complained about the negotiating role of Boehner – a lame-duck speaker with nothing to lose.
And they howled that it passed largely on the power of Democrats – 187 Democrats voted for it along with only 87 Republicans. Ryan trashed the budget deal over how it came together – “I think the process stinks,” he said – but embraced it nonetheless.
“What has been produced will go a long way toward relieving the uncertainty hanging over us,” he said before the vote. “It’s time for us to turn the page on the last few years and get to work on a bold agenda that we can take to the American people.”
The deal, which the Senate is expected to vote on next week, could be problematic for Ryan, because some opponents of it on and off Capitol Hill believe it was a “wink and a nod” by Boehner to get Ryan “off the hook” of a potential government shutdown, said Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
Ryan’s speakership may also have to confront federal funding for Planned Parenthood, an issue that some Republicans thought was worth taking to the brink of a government shutdown in the wake of undercover videos that allegedly showed employees of the group discussing the sale of fetal tissue.
“We still may have the threat of a shutdown,” Ornstein said. “For Ryan, at least getting through the next year will take a lot of work and a lot of fortitude. I don’t think we’re seeing a honeymoon here.”
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