“Sometimes you have to play a long time to be able to play like yourself.” -- Miles Davis
House Speaker Paul Ryan strode to the lectern in the House Radio/TV Gallery studio Thursday morning. He carried with him a half-creased paper, bearing the words of a short statement about his initial days on the job and a highway bill lawmakers approved just moments before, three levels above on the House floor.
But frankly, Ryan didn’t need any notes or briefing book for this session. The Wisconsin Republican already knew what he was going to say. Or better yet, what he had to say.
“This has been a great week in the people’s House,” he proclaimed.
The speaker then extolled his decision to entertain more than 100 amendments to the highway measure and how the House was already considering ideas to keep the government funded beyond December 11. Ryan said the GOP brass wouldn’t engineer a take-it-or-leave-it plan that was “pre-negotiated and the outcome pre-determined,” slammed against the deadline.
No. Under Ryan contends under his watch, the House of Representatives would be better. It will be more deliberative, more open and increasingly driven by members -- rather than one that handed down legislative edicts from on high.
Fair or not, some Republicans perceived that retired Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, wasn’t inclusive. They saw Boehner engineering bills from the sanctum of the speaker’s office and then leaning on Democrats in the minority to garner votes for must-pass bills. Rank-and-file members claim they felt left out. Perhaps a stark contrast to Paul Ryan, who says almost anything can happen.
“Bills will come up that may not pass,” warned Ryan. He said legislation was gurgling from below “organically in a bottom-up approach.”
These are the things Ryan must say and do -- at least for a while -- to contrast himself with Boehner’s regime and establish his own bona fides. But what will happen when say, the government is on the precipice of a shutdown in mid-December because legislation Republicans wrote “may not pass?”
What happens when Republicans insist that the House author a spending measure that defunds Planned Parenthood? Scores of Republicans are on the record saying they won’t vote for a bill that doesn’t strip money from Planned Parenthood. Can that bill pass the Senate? And what happens if President Obama vetoes the measure, triggering a standoff?
What happens when 30-plus bipartisan members write to Ryan, demanding the House debate an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to combat ISIL in Syria and Iraq? Just last week, Obama dispatched additional special forces to Syria. For more than a year-and-a-half, the United States has been active on the ground and in the air in the struggle against ISIL. Members of both parties frame this conflict as central to America’s security. Yet both houses of Congress have ducked the constitutional responsibility to authorize (or ban) the deployment of U.S. military assets in this manner.
A tough vote either way? Sure. America suffers from war fatigue after 14 years in Afghanistan, and close to 13 years in Iraq. Twenty-five years in Iraq if you use the metric dating back to the first Gulf War. Do members of Congress really want to be on the hook voting for another war? Or, do they want to be responsible for not voting to challenge ISIL head on if something bad happens?
How does Ryan handle an effort by Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., for the House to vote on a resolution asking the Senate to alter its filibuster rules and precedents? Ryan broke bread with Republican senators during their weekly party luncheon in the Mike Mansfield Room near the Senate floor Tuesday. Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., declared that Ryan was “crushing it” during the sit-down. But Thune didn’t believe the speaker will torch the upper chamber.
“I think (Ryan) is very aware of the limitations of the Senate,” Thune said.
Oh, and about that highway bill Ryan trumpeted …
The House overwhelmingly approved the six-year, $325 billion package by a vote of 363-64 to prevent shutting off federal highway programs in a few days. But there’s only enough money to build and preserve infrastructure for three years. The measure is nowhere close to the $478 billion the Obama administration argues is necessary to curb road congestion.
Many transportation advocates assert the bill is deficient because highway programs lack a funding source. Beginning in 1993, Congress levied a 18.4-cent tax on every gallon of gas sold in the country to pay for highway operations. That tax has fallen woefully short for years, creating a fiscal chasms Congress must cover with money from elsewhere.
For Ryan, the former Ways and Means Committee Chairman, the panel in charge of writing the nation’s tax code, new taxes are anathema.
But the Highway Trust Fund remains in trouble -- regardless of House action this week. Is Ryan -- sporting his fiscal and tax resume -- going to stand by as speaker of the House and allow this crucial program to bleed dry?
These are the conundrums facing Paul Ryan. He may have a general blueprint to operate the House more “organically” taking the “bottom-up approach.” But dilemmas and quandaries will soon multiply. Inevitably, Ryan’s approach and leadership style will evolve.
Everything may seem as smooth and as sweet as a dollop of Wisconsin frozen custard for Ryan now. But the speaker knows challenges loom.
“I don’t think you get a lot of honeymoons for things like this,” he said.
That’s why Ryan will naturally face growing pains in this new role as he figures out, as Miles Davis said, “how to play like yourself.”
Ryan is consciously trying to devolve power from the speaker’s suite. He deferred to the will of three full committee or subcommittee chairmen by name when asked about various legislative items at his Thursday press conference.
On figuring out ways to fund the government by December 11, Ryan said Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., and his members “will hold a series of executive sessions.”
Notably, Ryan would not commit that the government wouldn’t shutter just before Christmas. On closing the controversial detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Ryan said that “Guantanamo detainees should be in Guantanamo.”
However, Ryan referred reporters seeking “any further answer” to legislation and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.
When pressed about maintaining a congressionally-imposed moratorium on studying firearm deaths as a public health issue, Ryan replied “I will refer you to the appropriators” and Oklahoma GOP Rep. Tom Cole, chairman of the House’s Labor, Health and Human Services subcommittee.
Some of the topics here are central to avoiding a government shutdown. Ryan and others must decide whether to latch so-called policy “riders” to the spending bill. These are riders that could defund Planned Parenthood or strip away Environmental Protection Agency policies.
“Anyone who doesn’t think this (spending bill) will have policy implications and riders is living in another world,” Cole observed.
Pennsylvania GOP Rep. Charlie Dent, a senior member of the House’s Appropriations Committee, said: “I don’t think you can go back to the well on Planned Parenthood.”
In other words, the House already OK a measure that didn’t cancel federal money for the group, to avoid a shutdown a few weeks ago. But the House advanced that plan -- under the watch of Boehner -- with just 91 Republican and 186 Democratic “yeahs.” And 151 Republicans voted “nay.” So it’s likely that moving a funding bill to avoid a shutdown in December must still entail substantial Democratic support.
How will that play with Republicans if they interpret the approach as the same one employed by Ryan’s predecessor? Or, as the new speaker cryptically noted Thursday, “bills will come up that may not pass.”
Ryan is already placing his imprimatur on the speakership. There are sure to be false starts and hiccups. Triumphs and outright disasters. Ryan’s time with the gavel is just beginning. How will Ryan operate? And will he perform the same six months from now as he does today.
Ryan’s going to have to do this job a while before he knows how to play like himself.