New Speaker Ryan clears a hurdle with budget and tax deals

House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. gestures during an end-of-the-year news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015, as the Congress moves toward passage of a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill.
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. gestures during an end-of-the-year news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015, as the Congress moves toward passage of a $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill. AP

Conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives complained about key issues being missing from a massive $1.1 trillion spending bill that the House easily approved Friday. Democrats howled about a $680 billion tax-extenders package the chamber passed Thursday.

But it’s all good for House Speaker Paul Ryan. Despite carping on both sides of the aisle over the major year-end bills, the Wisconsin Republican is receiving high marks in his first test as speaker, helping to avert a partial government shutdown.

“He’s clearly enjoying a bit of a honeymoon,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

House lawmakers voted 316-113 for a spending package that keeps the government functioning through September 2016. In a display of bipartisanship, 166 Democrats and 150 Republicans supported the bill. Ninety-five Republicans and 18 Democrats voted no.

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The tax package – which extends some 50 tax breaks to businesses and families – sailed through the House on Thursday on a 318-109 vote and garnered 77 Democratic votes despite strong objections to the measure by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

More than an hour after the House held its last vote for the year, the Senate voted 65-33 Friday for a measure that combined the spending and tax bills. Among the senators running for president in 2016, Rand Paul, R-Ky., Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who’s seeking the Democratic nomination, voted against the measure.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., voted for it. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., didn’t vote Friday.

The House omnibus spending bill passed in a manner that led to John Boehner’s downfall as House speaker: with a healthy dose of Democratic support and cold shoulders from conservative Republicans who viewed omissions of Syrian refugee and abortion restrictions in the measure as a sign of surrender to the political opposition.

“I think we’ve got some good wins,” Ryan said of the tax and spending bills Thursday. “And look, Democrats win some things, too. That’s the nature of bipartisan compromise. And so the way I look at this is we have made the best of the situation we have.”

I feel good about what we’ve been able to accomplish in just a few short weeks, and I feel very good about where we’re going in the next year.

House Speaker Paul Ryan

While Friday’s vote looked like “Meet the new speaker, same as the old speaker,” Ryan’s supporters and even critics insist that while the outcome was the same, the route to passage reflected a different style and tone from the Boehner era.

“I do give him high marks because he inherited this mess, didn’t create it,” said Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C. “We’re all giving him a little leeway. He’s made sure the process is open, giving plenty of notice to members on what was coming.”

That said, Hudson didn’t vote for the spending bill because “a lot of policy I wanted to see in there didn’t make it,” including language from a measure he co-authored with House Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, to restrict the flow of Syrian and Iraqi refugees to the United States in the wake of last month’s terrorist attacks in Paris.

“I’m real disappointed, and I can’t support the (spending) legislation, but I’m not going to put the blame on his shoulders,” Hudson said, adding the lack of language stripping Planned Parenthood of federal funding to his list of disappointments.

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Hudson and other conservative lawmakers are buoyed by Ryan’s vow to change the House culture to make it a more inclusive institution where laws are crafted in committees – not the speaker’s office – and rank-and-file members of all political ideologies can have their say without fear of retribution.

“He’s meeting with everybody. He’s promising to crack the entitlement reform window open,” said Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., a member of the hard-line conservative House Freedom Caucus who likes what he’s seen and heard from Ryan thus far but voted against Friday’s spending bill. “He’s got the package, he’s got the expertise on the budget and entitlements to get us out of the ditch.”

Even Democrats offered kudos. President Barack Obama credited Boehner, R-Ohio, for his role in helping to frame the funding deal before he stepped down in October, but he added that Ryan “has been professional. He has reached out to tell me what he can and cannot do. I think it’s a good working relationship.”

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who shocked people by proclaiming himself a “Paul Ryan fan” shortly after the Wisconsin Republican took the speaker’s gavel in October, commended him and other negotiators Wednesday on the spending bill.

“This is good legislation,” Reid said on the Senate floor. “This is truly the art of compromise.”

But not everyone is enamored. Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee blasted Ryan’s leadership and the tax and budget deals.

Paul got handed a dirty barn, and he’s got to clean it up.

Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., House Freedom Caucus member

“I’m just amazed that Paul Ryan, in such a short period of time, has completely shown tone-deafness to the mood of Republicans and conservatives and to working-class Democrats who are getting kicked in the gut by their own government with stuff like this,” Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, said Thursday on conservative host Laura Ingraham’s nationally syndicated radio show.

The Drudge Report ran a front-of-the-website story Thursday with a headline that declared “Ryan Gives it All Away” with a link to a story that said, “The agreement Ryan reached with fellow congressional negotiators also looks much like one Boehner would reach.”

So far, Ryan’s been immune to such talk, benefiting from being on the job for just six weeks. But for how long will the honeymoon last?

Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a Freedom Caucus member whose motion seeking Boehner's removal from the speaker’s chair helped prompt the Ohio Republican’s decision to retire, said he was beginning to hear rumblings of dissatisfaction from his congressional district with Ryan’s stewardship.

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Meadows said he was receiving a lot of emails expressing concerns about a provision put in the spending bill that would expand the H-2B visa program for seasonal foreign workers.

“Because immigration was such an issue with him in his speakership, that one change was probably more troubling for some of the people I represent than anything else,” Meadows said.

While some Freedom Caucus members and other conservatives say they gave Ryan room to operate with a budget and tax deals, they might not do the same next year.

“I give him the benefit of the doubt,” Hudson said. “Next year he owns it.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article gave the wrong title for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

William Douglas: 202-383-6026, @williamgdouglas