Farm bill, immigration redux, Ryan's potential ouster, like a Shakespeare 'play within a play'

Shakespeare may have been onto something when penning “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

In the play, the kingdom ruled by Titania and Oberon is collapsing because of their internal scrums and bickering. In fact, the kingdom is a wreck because of their governance. Flowers are sprouting in the middle of the winter. Snow falls in the summertime. Everything is topsy turvy.

In the final lines of the play, Puck apologizes to the audience. Perhaps the play wasn’t up to standards.

“Gentles, do not reprehend; if you pardon, we will mend,” Puck tells the audience.

Puck promises better fare for the next performance. But Puck also gives himself and the players an out. Puck suggests that everything the audience witnessed may not even be real. It may have just been a dream.

Such is the case for House Speaker Paul Ryan and GOPers these days. A plan to approve a partisan, farm bill and food assistance measure imploded late last week over immigration.

That’s because disparate wings of the House Republican Conference are at odds with the GOP leaders over how to handle immigration and DACA policy.

The decision by key members of the conservative House Freedom Caucus to oppose the farm bill helped dispatch that measure to defeat. Meantime, moderate Republicans are within striking distance of executing a rare, parliamentary end-run that will spur an automatic debate on four different immigration and DACA bills in June or July.

The contretemps spurred chatter among some Republicans that Ryan’s retirement was the issue. A few argued that maybe they’re better without the Wisconsin Republican and could push for a mid-Congress leadership election.

Ryan’s a lame duck, retiring in January. It’s unclear if the GOP will even retain the House. If the GOP anoints someone new, there’s clarity as to who’s in charge. Is it Ryan? Is it House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.? Is it House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., or someone else?

“This is filtering around for a variety of reasons,” said one Republican source familiar with the talk.

Another senior House Republican indicated that the farm bill failure “lit the fuse” to switch leadership at the top in mid-stream. Democrats and Republicans pick their individual speaker candidates in late November. A vote for speaker is usually held on the floor every other January 3, the start of each new Congress.

In other words, everything is topsy turvy. Snow in summer. Flowers blooming in winter. The debate about the farm bill, really wasn’t about the farm bill. It was about immigration. A Shakespearean “play within a play.”

Maybe the internal squabbles forced leaders to lose control of their kingdom. All they need now is for Ryan and others to steal a line from Puck and apologize to the audience, vowing to get it together before the next run.

Or, maybe things aren’t that screwed up in the first place. Perhaps, a Puck implies, it’s all just an illusion. A dream.

In truth, is the pandemonium enveloping Ryan really that different from the tumult faced by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, before he retired in October, 2015?

During his time clasping the speaker’s gavel, Boehner scrapped with rank-and-file Republicans over immigration. There’s a big battle over immigration now. Boehner presided over a failed farm bill in June, 2013. Ryan can now add a similar ignominy to his resume.

Let’s be clear: There’s no one who can command the votes for the speakership right now besides Ryan. McCarthy even tamped down rumors he was trying to engineer a palace coup.

“Completely untrue,” he said. “Paul has my total support.”

Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., defended Ryan.

“There are no barnacles on the speaker’s boat,” he said. “He will be speaker until November.”

But the concept of triggering a speaker’s vote over the summer actually carries consequences for Democrats. That’s why the maneuver is intriguing to some Republicans.

Republicans have appropriated House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., as a foil since the historic 2010 midterm election, which flipped the House to the GOP and cost  Pelosi her speakership. A unique byproduct of calling a vote for speaker now forces Democrats to vote on the record, for or against her.

Democrats must win seats on GOP turf this fall if they are to have a chance at winning control of the House. Pelosi isn’t popular in congressional districts in which moderate and conservative Democrats are vying for office. Republicans would naturally ensure that any speaker vote on the House floor in Washington trickles into those campaigns.

Sixty-three Democrats voted for Rep. Tim Ryan, R-Ohio, over Pelosi in their internal leadership contest last fall.

But Democrats dismissed the potential GOP gambit to get Democrats on the record again as “voting for Pelosi” just before the midterm election.

Multiple Democrats noted that a mid-Congress speaker vote is a different animal than a vote for speaker at the beginning of a Congress. When Boehner left in October 2015, there was no real challenge to Pelosi when the entire House chose between her and Paul Ryan as his successor.

“They’re not going to drive a wedge in our caucus,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said of theoretical GOP leadership calisthenics. “They ought to stop gotcha politics and ought to focus on substance.”

But a mid-Congress speaker vote could present another opportunity on the GOP side of the aisle. This is the “two bites at the apple” theory.

A new speaker over the summer would face tests on immigration, the farm bill, federal spending and a border wall. There’s always a restlessness among House Republicans. So if Republicans tapped someone new over the summer and didn’t like their performance, they could possibly select someone else in January.

However, this is postulatory. Perhaps a dream, as Puck suggests in the play. Republicans squelched any conjecture about GOP leadership for now.

But two weeks in late June could metamorphose abstraction into reality.

House Republicans have etched in stone a June 22 re-vote on the failed farm bill. Remember that the bill didn’t fail because of agriculture policy.

It sswent up in flames over immigration. Key members of the Freedom Caucus yanked their support for the farm bill in an effort to force the House Republican brass to concoct a conservative agreement on immigration. That’s why House Republican leaders have worked so feverishly behind the scenes to bridge the gap between moderates and conservatives.

“We are making progress. How it ends, I don’t know,” said Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., a moderate, as he left a meeting with GOP leaders. “It’s important to have a fairly specific agreement by the end of the week.”

And, it’s the end of the week, and so far, no deal.

In essence, the Freedom Caucus has taken a hostage: the farm bill. If there’s no compact on immigration before June 22, the roughly 35-member group  will shoot the hostage and the farm bill will never return to the House floor this year.

June 25 is the next problem.

A coalition of 213 moderate Republicans and most Democrats have signed what’s called a “discharge petition” to go against the wishes of House Republican leaders and force a debate on a series of immigration and DACA bills. A discharge petition is a rarely successful parliamentary gambit that can plonk bills onto the floor if the entreaty secures 218 signatures.

The House calendar is arranged in such a way that June 25 is the next available date to consider a discharge petition -- provided its advocates score the signatures by June 11. GOP leaders want to avoid a messy, divisive debate on immigration. There’s a chance that the House could approve one of the immigration/DACA bills with just the right mixture of Democrats and Republicans.

You want a Doomsday scenario for Ryan? Try a second failed farm bill, coupled with an embarrassing failure to maintain control of the House floor with the discharge petition and perhaps the passage of a controversial immigration plan -- favored mostly by Democrats. That turn of events would be apocalyptic. It could breathe life into the idea of early leadership battles as the kingdom devolves into chaos, ala the play in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Maybe none of this internecine Republican conflict is real. It may just appear that way. Especially if Republicans find a path to quash the immigration rebellion on the discharge petition and pass the farm bill.

“This conference has always had its ups and downs. The speaker will continue to move us forward as a team,” said Ryan’s spokeswoman AshLee Strong.

If that’s the case, all Republicans will have to do is apologize like Puck. They’ll try spruce things up for the next performance.