House Speaker Paul Ryan needs a win following the collapse of his health care bill. Achieving that won’t be easy for the 47-year-old leader, whose ascent as a Republican heavyweight has been marred by an embarrassing flop on the most momentous legislation he’s ever handled.
Last month’s unraveling of the health care legislation, thanks to conservative versus moderate battles that still rage, tarnished Ryan’s reputation as the leader who could unite a fractious GOP. Next come tax and spending fights as fraught as the party’s stymied attempt to dismantle President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.
“I don’t know that the Lord himself could unite our caucus,” said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho.
Ryan, R-Wis., will need all the clout he can muster to succeed with those upcoming bills and with continuing attempts to resurrect the health care legislation. He cannot afford another reversal without risking further erosion of his own power, though no one says his hold on the speakership is in imminent jeopardy.
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“He’s got to show movement, either on health care and-or other issues,” said former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. Lott said the health care retreat “makes it harder, but it makes it also more important that they get these other things done.”
After Congress’ two-week recess, House leaders plan to focus on a bill preventing a late-April government shutdown and on a plan to revamp the federal tax system. Guiding them will be Ryan, the 2012 GOP vice presidential nominee. He was pressed into the speaker’s job in 2015 as a telegenic star who appealed to all segments of the party, replacing the ousted Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Fast forward to now.
Republicans have yet to heal from the events of March 24, when Ryan abruptly canceled a House vote on the health care bill because opposition from both wings of the party would have sunk it. The retreat wounded President Donald Trump and Ryan, who along with other Republicans, long made repealing Obama’s 2010 law a campaign pledge — only to lay an egg three months into uncontested GOP control of Washington.
“It was not a good day, I totally agree with that,” Ryan said in an interview last week.
There was plenty of blame all around, raising questions about how the party will band together on its upcoming agenda. Key will be Ryan’s relationship with Trump, which seems functional after a presidential campaign that saw Ryan criticize Trump’s comments about Hispanics and women.
Trump and moderates blame the hard-line House Freedom Caucus for resisting a health care compromise. Conservatives accuse Ryan of not consulting them early as he drafted the bill and not cracking down on recalcitrant moderates. Trump pressed GOP leaders to move quickly, in the end prematurely, in search of an early legislative triumph over solid Democratic opposition.
“The president wanted us to get it going,” Ryan said. “There was a desire to get an aggressive timetable. We wanted to meet that aggressive timetable.”
Ryan said that going forward, “It means we have to talk things out much, much, much more thoroughly.”
Lott and others don’t fault Ryan. They say the episode illustrates the depth of GOP divisions, the stubbornness of the Freedom Caucus and how little sway leaders have over today’s 237 House Republicans — drawing sympathy even from Democrats.
“There are days I feel bad for him,” Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said of Ryan.
Congress no longer earmarks federal spending for home-town projects, so leaders can’t dangle those as carrots or sticks. For groups such as the Freedom Caucus, whose three dozen conservatives have enough leverage to derail bills, booting them off committees or tweeting against them can simply bolster their credentials as anti-establishment rebels.
“How do you play hardball when you’re using a whiffle ball and a Nerf ball?” said Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla. “You can’t do anything, so you’ve got to be able to, I think, appeal to their greater good, or just continue to bowl with them at the White House.”
Trump used such an outing so White House officials could lobby GOP lawmakers toward a health care deal.
Ryan aides say he’s sent over $16 million to the House GOP campaign committee this year, $5 million more than the 2016 first quarter, a move that can build goodwill.
On the other hand, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a political committee linked to House GOP leaders, last month removed a campaign staffer it had sent to the district of Rep. David Young, R-Iowa, after Young came out against the health care bill.
“I’m not an arm-breaker. I don’t believe in that style,” Ryan said. “I believe in persuading instead of intimidating.”
Now, Ryan must quickly pass legislation financing federal agencies or face a government shutdown days after Congress returns from its break.
Trump and his allies want it to include money for his proposed border wall with Mexico and a boost for the Pentagon. Ryan may encounter conservative opposition and need Democratic votes to pass it — a tactic that got Boehner in trouble with his party’s right wing.
Also ahead is tax legislation. Republicans are divided over a Ryan-backed proposal to tax imports and which tax provisions to end to help lower rates.