The Cuyahoga River, which slices through downtown Cleveland twice, caught fire in the 1950s and 1960s.
There is so much dread and acrimony about the GOP presidential contest, one wonders if the Republican convention in Cleveland could be the scene of a similar conflagration.
Talk of a brokered or contested convention abounds. Angst paralyzes some Republican lawmakers about the prospects of Donald Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, heading the GOP ticket. There’s worry about outright discord and no clear winner come convention time.
Is it any wonder some Republicans briefly launched an effort to recruit House Speaker Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to seek the presidency?
Former U.S. Ambassador to Finland Earle Mack wanted to garner one million online signatures to compel Ryan to run.
“If you do not get 1,238 delegates on the first ballot, then the confusion starts. The chaos starts,” Mack told the Fox Business Network. “Because of the disarray, they would need someone to heal it. And that would be Paul Ryan.”
The speaker’s political team wasn’t amused. Ryan’s counsel, Timothy Kronquist, sent a letter to the Federal Election Commission on Monday disavowing the organization.
Kronquist followed up with a cease-and-desist letter Thursday to the pro-Ryan group. The dispatch accused the outfit of giving voters the impression its activities are “in coordination with Speaker Ryan.”
Kronquist noted that Ryan repeatedly said he isn’t running for president.
Of course, Ryan was also adamant that he wasn’t running for speaker of the House …
Until he was.
An effort to quash political activity even if Ryan doesn’t support the draft effort? Weren’t Republicans lathered up when they accused the IRS of trying to temper political activities? Where’s Lois Lerner?
By Friday afternoon, the pro-Ryan group halted its efforts. It issued a statement saying the recruitment mission “could become an unwanted distraction from the Speaker’s current responsibilities.”
However, the group argued that “in an open convention, the best person to lead our country would be Speaker Paul Ryan.”
Ryan’s done all he can to distance himself from chatter of a brokered convention.
“That’s ridiculous,” Ryan exclaimed in January when asked about the likelihood of the brokered convention scenario. When asked if he could guarantee there wouldn’t be a fight in Cleveland, he replied “How would I know?”
House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., knows the risks Republicans would face at a multi-ballot confab.
“If they think that they’re going to upset the verdict of the people in terms of the elections, that can really be opening a very big Pandora’s Box,” she said. “I think that you change that to your peril.”
The GOP’s political consternation over the top of the ticket translates to a legislative frailty on Capitol Hill.
This angst and division in the party is crystalized in the current fight in Congress to approve a budget -- and maybe spending bills later this year.
“We believe we have an obligation, a duty, to offer another way forward. To offer an alternative,” Ryan said in January.
Ryan talked repeatedly about how “Americans want progress” and said he’s “really excited about “being bold.”
He codified 2016 is “a year of ideas.” The speaker said he wants to “offer our fellow citizens solutions.”
Lofty rhetoric. But the GOP is struggling with the budget. No budget and it’s hard for Congress to crank through the 12 annual spending bills that fund the government.
These can be the basic -- at times boring -- mechanics of Congress. And it’s challenging to match soaring talk about agendas and ideas when the oratory of the Republican presidential frontrunner focuses on the size of his jockstrap.
The success of Donald Trump and recalcitrance of House conservatives is now giving Ryan the same headaches encountered by former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
"Speaker Ryan is the ultimate optimist, and the job has only energized him," spokeswoman AshLeeStrong said Saturday.
Republicans may yet try to advance an annual budget through committee next week and on the House floor later this month. Rank-and-file House Republicans huddle in the Capitol basement late Monday afternoon to assess matters.
Moving soon is important if the House is to actually knock out spending bills this year and truly legislate.
That would prevent cramming everything into an ugly, omnibus measure in December. But a failure to move any sort of budget doesn’t match Ryan’s bold agenda talk. It could be a significant embarrassment for the speaker since he’s touted as the “numbers” guy.
In fact, the die for Ryan and this budget may have already been cast the day before he became speaker.
Last October, the House voted 266-167 to establish topline spending numbers for the current budget cycle and the one that now stymies the House.
Boehner engineered that agreement with President Obama. It set the annual appropriations figure (often called “discretionary” spending) for fiscal 2017 at $1.070 trillion. That meant Congress would then fillet the $1.070 trillion among the 12 annual spending bills to run the government.
But examine the October, 28, 2015, roll call. Of the 266 yea votes, Republicans only provided 79. Boehner and Ryan were among that group.
Now, conservatives demand Ryan boot the $1.070 trillion figure in favor of $1.040 trillion.
If the leadership had the votes, they would have moved the budget through committee and onto the floor a few weeks ago.
House Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., whipped the budget last week. There’s no formal green light just yet despite a hope of action soon.
Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, chairman the Republican Study Committee, the largest bloc of conservatives in the House -- roughly 170 members of the 246 member House GOP conference.
“I have not backed off,” Flores said. “I’m not endorsing $1.070 trillion.”
However, he did say a plan which helped with broader savings -- even while sticking to $1.070 trillion -- might be worth considering.
“You have to look at the whole picture,” Flores said.
There are also political considerations. A number of incumbent Texas Republicans were jumpy about their primaries earlier this month. There was concern that voting for a budget at the higher level could lend ammo to their opponents.
But all Texas GOPers won and avoided runoffs. So, the delay may help.
Ryan still hasn’t solved the most-pervasive problem in the House Republican Conference. It’s an issue that dogged his predecessor.
“There are about 100 people here who would vote no and hope yes,” said one knowledgeable source.
That flies in the face of a memo Scalise penned to his colleagues in November.
“Too many in our conference are falling into the pattern of voting no on tough bills while actually hoping the bill passes because they know that the outcome will be even worse if the bill fails,” he wrote.
Failing to adopt a budget cripples the House from completing most spending bills. No bold agenda there. And it’s awkward for Republicans -- and Ryan in particular -- who browbeat Senate Democrats for not adopting budgets.
Members of the House’s ultra-conservative Freedom Caucus would like $30 billion in immediate cuts to entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. It is unclear how such cuts could impact current beneficiaries.
GOP Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., wants to curb the entitlements in appropriations bills, though that violates the much-vaunted “regular order” by running afoul of multiple budget rules and regulations.
“I am a strong supporter of cutting mandatory spending, just not on Appropriations bills,” said Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky. “Any such attempt would stop the appropriations process in its tracks -- risking the passage of appropriations bills in the House, in the Senate, and most certainly White House approval.
“This would ultimately lead us once again to Continuing Resolutions and an omnibus, which is the opposite of the ‘regular order’ we are all seeking to achieve.”
It’s typical to alter entitlements via a special budget process called “reconciliation.” Reconciliation usually comes later in the year. But the House can’t employ the reconciliation maneuver unless it approves a budget. Still, Brat and other conservatives are skeptical about waiting.
“I prefer to see (changes) in appropriations because they come first,” he said. “I have to see it in writing.”
Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., is also unimpressed.
“I haven’t heard anything that would change my mind,” he said. “It’s always a hope and a prayer. All other hopes and prayers have failed.”
Brooks was not concerned about demands for “regular order,” though some approaches floated by Freedom Caucus members seem to deviate from doing things by the book.
“I’m not concerned with the process,” Brooks said. “I’m concerned with substance.”
This boils down to a math problem. A scant 79 Republicans voted for the $1.070 trillion budget deal in the final hours of the Boehner regime. Ryan is now trying to convert 79 into 218 yeas to pass a budget. The math might not work.
All the while, there’s rhetoric of big ideas and a big agenda ahead of the convention and election. And if the House is impaired legislatively, there are questions if the talk rings hollow.