House Speaker Paul Ryan’s wobbly standing with staunch conservatives took a fresh hit Thursday, and while critical colleagues stopped short of demanding his ouster, they made it clear they were not content with his performance.
Conservatives, optimistic and enthusiastic earlier this year over the prospect of a Republican president and GOP control of Congress for the first time in 10 years, have been instead frustrated with their party’s inability to win any major victories. They are fuming over the failure to repeal Obamacare, which barely passed the House but has been stalled in the Senate, or the delays in pushing tax reform.
Wednesday brought an even bigger outrage: President Donald Trump cutting a budget and debt limit deal with Democrats — and then watching Democratic leaders spend the rest of the week loudly, proudly declaring victory.
Frustrated Republican congressmen, led by Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, are carefully but deliberately directing their ire at Republican leadership, not the president. But Meadows, the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, played down reports that he wanted to oust Ryan.
“To extrapolate out that there’s some kind of leadership change or plan to address that is just not accurate,” Meadows said Thursday morning.
“Nobody does policy better than Speaker Ryan, but we do have to transition to the place where it’s not just about vision-casting, but it’s about execution,” said Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., chairman of the conservative House Republican Study Committee. “I think with any coach, team, business or ministry, whatever it may be, I think the ones calling the shots have to bear some of the responsibility.”
There is no obvious replacement for Ryan, and no coup is planned anytime soon, according to Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio. At one point Thursday, some were floating former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who does not hold office, as a possible replacement. Speakers do not have to be congressmen.
Gingrich quickly doused the idea of a comeback.
“Paul Ryan IS Speaker of the House and he will remain Speaker of the House. He is intellectually brilliant, hard working, and solidly GOP,” Gingrich wrote on Twitter.
Jordan, who would not say he supports Ryan, insisted that caucus members are not talking about a leadership shakeup, but are frustrated by the lack of progress on conservative goals. Constituents, he said “are ticked off at Congress for not getting things done we said we would do. That is all I’m focused on.”
Ryan, though, is clearly on the edge of losing his far-right flank, about two years after winning the speaker post. Conservatives were highly critical of his lack of planning and execution after Trump handed Democrats a huge unexpected win.
“The leader’s responsible for everything that happens or fails to happen,” said Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Ohio, one of three dozen Freedom Caucus members. “It’s the privilege but also the burden of leadership.”
Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican and 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, won the job after conservatives helped to end the tenure of John Boehner, his predecessor, and vetoed heir apparent Kevin McCarthy, then and now House majority leader.
Trump’s deal with Democratic congressional leaders to bundle a three-month extension of the federal budget and the debt limit increase with relief for Hurricane Harvey victims was a shock. An hour before the agreement was reached, Ryan said Democrats’ plans for such a short-term deal on the debt limit was “ridiculous:”
But what, conservatives asked, was Ryan’s plan in the first place?
“What was the leadership’s plan for raising the debt ceiling. Was there a plan?” Meadows asked Thursday.
Ryan said Hurricane Harvey, which unleashed severe flooding in Houston and other parts of Texas and Louisiana, as well as the pending threat to Florida from Hurricane Irma, changed “the entire calculation” for dealing with the debt ceiling and eliminated any extra time House leaders had to deal with the issue. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s available cash may run out by Friday.
“So the president made a game call (Wednesday) that he thought it is in our country’s interest to have bipartisan support in a bipartisan package to deal with these ongoing hurricane disasters,” Ryan said.
But many Republicans are balking at voting for the package, approved 80-17 by the Senate on Thursday, which included $15 billion in hurricane aid.
About 100 members of the Republican Study Committee, another conservative House group, plan to vote no on the agreement unless there are conservative changes included, said Walker. The bill is still expected to pass, since it is likely to win support from most of the 194 Democrats and enough of the other 140 Republicans.
Walker, chairman of the study committee, sent Ryan a letter outlining 19 potential add-ons to the deal, including repealing Obamacare, changes in the National Flood Insurance Program and making the House’s ban on earmarks, or special local projects inserted into spending bills, permanent.
Ryan did have his conservative defenders.
“Paul Ryan’s heart's in the right place but his role as speaker is herding a lot of cats,” said Rep. Ralph Norman, a South Carolina Republican.
Norman said he had no problem with Ryan remaining speaker, but conservative angst about the speaker is not going away.
“I think there’s a lot of of general unrest about conservative priorities in this Congress. You’re not getting cover from the White House and it makes it tough for existing congressional leadership. I get it,” said Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C. “So I think there are a number of folks who are increasingly grumbling about that, but it’s not at a boiling point.”
Contact: Brian Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org
Emma Dumain contributed to this report.