Perhaps the best thing that happened to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., this week is that he won his primary.
And, perhaps the worst thing that happened to him this week is that he won his primary.
Ryan’s GOP challenger Paul Nehlen didn’t convert the speaker into the second coming of former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. In the end, Ryan barely broke a sweat dispatching the neophyte Nehlen. But despite all of the press surrounding the primary, it’s likely that Ryan’s trouncing of Nehlen will emerge as the speaker’s easiest task of the next few months.
The speaker must next navigate a complex, political minefield – clearing hurdles which are both political and legislative. All speakers face significant tests during their tenures. Many of Ryan’s were delayed thanks to the so-called “barn cleaning” engineered last year by President Obama and then-House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. The premise behind the spending/debt limit pact was to grant Boehner’s successor as wide a berth as possible heading into winter. Well, the barn cleaning was last winter. And as anyone who has ever worked around livestock can attest, barns don’t stay clean for very long.
On its face, it may look like Ryan weathered the storm by whipping Nehlen at the polls Tuesday. But Ryan reluctantly accepted the speakership after Boehner’s abrupt departure simply because there wasn’t an obvious, viable candidate who could secure the backing of most House Republicans. That internecine fighting still rages today. That’s why one might rhetorically wonder if Ryan would have been better off had Nehlen laid him low Tuesday.
First, the speaker still stands by Donald Trump after the Republican presidential nominee suggested some Second Amendment backers take matters into their own hands should voters elect Hillary Clinton.
On multiple occasions, Ryan publicly upbraided Trump for his divisive comments about Muslims and immigration “litmus tests” based on faith. Ryan again took Trump to task after the nominee scrapped the Khan family, following the death of their son on the battlefield. What will Ryan do now, if anything?
This could evolve into a battle on several fronts.
First, Republicans are running away from Trump faster than Usain Bolt sprinting in a Rio qualifying heat. Is it in Ryan’s interest to continue to support Trump? Will Ryan have to issue another admonition? And just how many more times can the speaker disavow the remarks of Trump before this exercise seems a little hollow? In fact, those repudiations may well have crossed that line a long time ago.
Democrats are apoplectic about Trump’s Second Amendment refrain. Keep in mind what Democrats were up in arms about in June and just before the summer recess: guns. What if Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and others orchestrate additional guerilla-style protests on guns when Congress reconvenes in September? Can Ryan speak to those tactics with any degree of credibility without distancing himself from Trump after the firearm brouhaha?
This is to say nothing of the particular peril the GOP may encounter at the polls this November. Ryan and other Republicans now “own” Trump. Not a good place to be if Clinton shellacks Trump come fall. And that’s to say nothing of inoculating rank-and-file Republicans from defeat as the GOP tries to maintain its 59-seat House majority. It’s still hard to see a clear pathway where Democrats can capture 30 seats. But with Trump faltering, that roadway could widen soon.
Last week, GOP challenger Roger Marshall defeated House Freedom Caucus member Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., in a primary. Huelskamp feuded openly with Boehner a few years ago. That spat culminated in the speaker stripping the Kansas Republican of his assignment on the House Agriculture Committee. Ryan’s generally scored favorable reviews from the Freedom Caucus, which helped depose Boehner last year. However, Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, laid some of the responsibility of Huelskamp ’s defeat at the feet of Ryan and the GOP leadership. House Republican leaders deny this. But it doesn’t help matters when the Freedom Caucus is uneasy with the leadership. Boehner can regale you with stories about that.
When Congress returns to session, lawmakers will have to grapple with some sort of plan to avoid a government shutdown on Oct. 1. Conservatives and members of the Freedom Caucus would prefer if both bodies of Congress approve a package which runs until early next year, avoiding any shenanigans which could evolve in a lame-duck session after the election. It’s believed the House and Senate would aim to approve a stopgap bill funding the entire government to avoid a shutdown through sometime in December. Depending on the outcome of the election, the House and Senate could then approve another measure to fund the government through February or March of next year.
Regardless, Ryan will need Democratic votes to approve such a plan. Republicans openly groused about Boehner repeatedly turning to Democrats to help approve big spending plans. It’s unclear how this round will unfold – especially since Ryan could never get his own Republican members together to approve a budget.
Finally, there is Zika. Senate Democrats filibustered a Zika funding package earlier this summer. The House approved the plan in June. But Democrats don’t like the topline spending number in the bill, nor provisions which deal with Planned Parenthood. Democrats contend Republicans are to blame for not playing ball with them on the Zika package. Republican blame Democrats. Regardless, this is an impasse.
Granted the speaker of the House always faces a host of challenges like these. Boehner certainly did. So did House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., when she wielded the gavel.
Paul Ryan manhandled Paul Nehlen in the Wisconsin primary the other night. For Ryan, that may be a good thing … or a bad thing.
Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.