The painful public collapse Friday of Paul Ryan’s biggest endeavor as House speaker — legislation to unwind the Democratic health care law he and his party spent years castigating as a disaster — dealt a serious blow to the Wisconsin Republican.
But as embarrassing a setback as this was — Obamacare is here to stay “for the foreseeable future,” Ryan conceded — he isn’t going anywhere.
No one is prepared to challenge Ryan for his job, said GOP lawmakers from across the Republican Conference. While some right-wing media and outside groups are agitating to replace the speaker, and his antagonists on the White House staff needle him anonymously in the press, there is no way he will be ousted.
President Donald Trump hasn’t turned on him, either — at least not yet. And Ryan remains popular with his rank-and-file members, who genuinely like him. Critically, Ryan is not a liability for them back home, the ultimate litmus test for any congressional leader.
Yet the debacle over the American Health Care Act showed how the promise of Ryan as speaker has failed to live up to the reality.
When he took over for former Speaker John Boehner in November 2015 following an uprising by conservatives, Ryan was seen as the one figure who could heal the divisions within the GOP Conference, especially with the hard-line Freedom Caucus. That hasn’t happened, to put it mildly.
Ryan is still struggling with the same stubborn political dynamic that torpedoed Boehner’s career. On big issues, if Ryan gives into the Freedom Caucus, he alienates more moderate members of his party and loses any ability to work with Democrats. If he tries to cut a deal with Democrats and his own moderates, the Freedom Caucus goes ballistic, attacking him in tandem with its allies in right-wing media and conservative outside groups.
It’s a lose-lose proposition.
Having a Republican in the White House was supposed to finally tame the group. It was easy to blow up deals Republicans were attempting to cut with Barack Obama; Donald Trump, the thinking went, would never tolerate it. The health-care debate showed how wrong that was.
So Ryan remains stuck in the same intra-party dysfunction.
“He’s a really nice guy, a really smart guy,” said a veteran GOP lawmaker who asked not to be named. But “he can’t seal the deal, which is a real problem.”
Even with Trump, the “ultimate closer,” in the White House.
Things won’t get any easier for Ryan. He will now have to find a way to deliver on Trump’s border wall, which Democrats have vowed to block. The possibility of a government shutdown looms in late April and again in October unless Republicans can figure out how to keep funding going. The debt ceiling has to be increased this summer, always a tough vote for GOP lawmakers. An expensive infrastructure package that conservatives hate will require Democratic buy-in.
That’s to say nothing of the next daunting item on the GOP to-do list, tax reform — arguably tougher to pull off than health-care legislation.
Ryan put his personal prestige on the line to pass his health care legislation, publicly and privately exhorting his colleagues to support it. Ryan became the face of the legislation, figuring he could sell it better than anyone else. In the end, enough of his own members rejected the proposal to bring it down.
After being forced to pull the bill, Ryan deployed many of the same lines he’s been using for months to explain away failures or setbacks. Republicans are suffering the “growing pains” of going from being the opposition party to the majority, he said. “Doing big things is hard,” the speaker said, adding that Republicans want “to improve people’s lives, and we will.”
Yet there was also a somber tone. Ryan didn’t try to hide from blame, and he warned his own GOP colleagues that they better find a way to compromise.
“I will not sugarcoat it, this was a disappointing day for us … This is a setback, no two ways about it,” Ryan told reporters after pulling the bill from the floor in the face of certain defeat. “All of us, myself included, will need time to reflect on how we got to this moment, what we could have done to do better.”
Ryan added: “But ultimately, this all kind of comes down to a choice. Are all of us willing to give a little to get something done? Are we willing to say yes to the good, to the very good, even if it’s not the perfect? Because if we’re willing to do that, there remains an incredible opportunity in front of us.”
Ryan said he didn’t “want to cast blame” for who lost health care, but he then went on to blame the Freedom Caucus — which he called “their team” — for bringing down his bill.
“There is a block of ‘no’ votes that we had, that is why this didn’t pass,” Ryan said. “Some of the members of that caucus were voting with us but not enough were. I met with their chairman earlier today, and he made it clear to me that the votes weren’t going to be there from their team. That was sufficient to have this bill not pass.”
Trump, for his part, praised Ryan despite the failure to pass the health care bill, which leaves Obamacare in place as the law of the land.
“I like Speaker Ryan. He worked very hard,” Trump told reporters in the White House after the bill was pulled. “I’m not going to speak badly about anybody within the Republican Party. Certainly there’s a history, but I really think Paul worked hard.”
Freedom Caucus members said they don’t blame Ryan for the failure, at least not publicly.
“Paul Ryan, he’ a very good man. He’s an eloquent speaker. He is an excellent representative of the GOP Conference as a whole,” said Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.). “I like the job he’s doing and I want him to stay as speaker of the House. And I ‘ve heard nothing to the contrary.”
Other rank-and-file members were equally supportive as they left town to lick their wounds.
“If you know of someone who cares more, works harder, who’s brighter, who’s more committed to lead this institution, give me their name,” said Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ala.), a Ryan loyalist. “We go through leaders like we’re changing shirts. I don’t think it reflects on the leadership, I think it reflects on us.”
Yet Ryan faces the prospect for the rest of this Congress — unless he moves decisively to the middle — that members may need to get signoff from the Freedom Caucus and its chairman, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), before they move major legislation. Or at least to know that the Freedom Caucus won’t try to kill their bill. It’s a dynamic that will be a huge challenge for Ryan as he tries to get past the Obamacare reversal.
Both Ryan and Trump emphasized they want to move quickly on to tax reform, although the failure to replace Obamacare leaves them with $1 trillion less to use for that fight, as there will be less room to cut taxes without ballooning the deficit.
“Yes, this does make tax reform more difficult, but it does not in any way make it impossible,” Ryan acknowledged.
But Ryan, a former chairman of the Ways and Means Committe, said it will be easier to get Republicans to agree on taxes than on health care. “I don’t think this is prologue for other future things because there are other parts of our agenda that people have even more agreement on what to achieve.”
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.
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