In First Test, Ryan Placates Right to Seal U.S. Spending Deal

Paul Ryan Sees Bipartisan Votes on Spending, Tax Bills
  • House Speaker employs text messages, open-door policy
  • Dinner with Nancy Pelosi may help secure Democratic votes

With late-night texts to his members and an open-door policy for his most hard-to-please colleagues, Paul Ryan was determined to keep the usual Republican infighting from derailing his maiden government spending deal as U.S. House speaker.

He made his chief of staff, David Hoppe, accessible to members of the arch-conservative Freedom Caucus for matters large and small, aides to Ryan and the group said. He kept them updated on negotiations, including wins and losses, and frequently asked for input. He’s resisted pressure to break a promise to wait three days before holding a vote on a $1.1 trillion spending and tax plan.

Ryan’s approach has so far paid off, earning him praise even from conservative lawmakers who don’t like the spending bill and have tried to grind bipartisan deal-making to a halt. Yet he has carefully lowered expectations for his party in 2016, cautioning that with a Democrat in the White House, few Republican policies can become law. The triangulation may inoculate him and his party from criticism should they achieve as little as he expects.

“It’s night and day,” said Representative Mark Meadows, a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus who filed a motion to depose Ryan’s predecessor, John Boehner. “I think we’ve expressed a real desire to have an open dialogue, and Speaker Ryan has not only delivered but continues to make a commitment to deliver in the future. And it makes everyone swallow bad news a little bit easier.”

Ryan’s biggest accomplishment may have been effectively removing from the table the threat of a government shutdown as current funding ran out last week, in part by neutralizing conservatives who demanded to block Syrian refugees from entering the country and to cut off federal money for Planned Parenthood, the women’s health service. Not a bad first outing, observers inside and outside government say, but as for Ryan’s dream of comprehensive tax reform as early as next year?

"Absolutely not," said Stan Collender, a budget expert. "This deal is not the start of a new era of cooperation between congressional Democrats and Republicans. It’s only a temporary truce because of common interests at this moment. The war will restart and intensify next year on all other issues."

Deficit Spending

The spending and tax-break plan still awaits votes in the House and Senate and is no model of conservative legislation. It would add about $680 billion to the deficit over 10 years, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation, defying Ryan’s reputation as the party’s chief budget-cutter. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said President Barack Obama would sign the bill and described it as a Democratic victory over Republican prerogatives.

"We feel good about the outcome, primarily because we got a compromise budget agreement that fought off a wide variety of ideological riders, but yet ensures the priorities that this administration has identified when it comes to investing in middle class families and protecting the country," Earnest told reporters Wednesday. "We succeeded."

Republicans won an end to a 40-year-ban on crude oil exports but had to agree to extend tax credits for wind and solar power. Democrats locked in tax breaks for low-income families but couldn’t get automatic increases tied to inflation. The deal preserved both parties’ sacred cows, including the GOP’s red line of no new taxes and Democrats’ demands to boost domestic and military spending equally.

Ryan of Wisconsin may have had a freer hand to raise spending than his predecessor thanks to the falling federal deficit. The $1.2 trillion deficit that Obama inherited in 2009 has plummeted to $426 billion in 2015.

"This is a very old-fashioned, circa 1960s or 1970s budget bill. It spends more, it taxes less, it increases the deficit," Collender said. "This is a return to old politics in the sense that if you give everybody something they’re likely to support it, the deficit and debt be damned. It’s a big change for the Republican Party."

Still, much of what Ryan accomplished in this deal will carry over to future negotiations. It also highlights in the clearest terms yet key aspects of Ryan’s leadership style, seven weeks into the job.

Better Process

Conservatives have railed for years against the sort of top-heavy deal-making required to strike a bargain on the plan, and the spending levels are much higher than they’d like. Yet many of them still praised Ryan’s approach.

“The process has been good. The process has been much better,” said Representative Mick Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican who helped found the Freedom Caucus.

One of Ryan’s major departures from Boehner’s style is his careful management of expectations. Boehner -- and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell -- repeatedly suffered self-inflicted wounds with the Republican base by making lofty promises and failing to follow through. They promised to repeal Obamacare, enact new limits on immigration and defund Planned Parenthood, none of which happened. This time, the cause animating the right was blocking Obama’s plan to bring in 10,000 Syrian refugees.

Ryan didn’t demand refugee restrictions, perhaps anticipating push-back from the White House and the House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi of California, whose members will have to provide votes to pass the legislation. The move reflects Ryan’s appeal to Republicans to shift “from being an opposition party to being a proposition party." He had Pelosi to his office to negotiate over dinner on Dec. 11.

Ryan has said he wants Obamacare repealed without promising to finish the job while Obama is still president. He has said Planned Parenthood shouldn’t receive federal funding, but he wants congressional committees to write legislation on the issue.

"I think Paul is going to be the person inclined to not necessarily make deals but to be reasonable in his demands and try to get legislation passed. And I think he’s got a pretty good relationship with the extreme right," said Steve Bell, a former top Republican budget aide. "And remember, he’s a policy person and is respected by his colleagues because they know he really does know policy very well."

No Tax Deal

Ryan has already conceded that he won’t be able to reach agreement with Obama on a comprehensive overhaul of the U.S. tax code next year, his longtime top policy goal.

The more urgent question is whether Ryan can achieve further modest deals in the final year of Obama’s presidency while staving off an uprising on the right. He’s now benefiting from a honeymoon period and an understanding among conservatives that the parameters of the spending deal were laid out by Boehner, before his retirement. Plus, lawmakers want to go home for the holidays.

That will change in 2016, and Ryan has already started managing expectations. In an early December speech, he presented a list of legislative goals for the election year. He was careful to include a tacit acknowledgment that little would be accomplished under Obama. That sets up tension with conservative members who prefer a fight over conceding defeat up front.

"Our constituents want us to fight on their behalf, even if we fail," Meadows said in the interview. "And so in 2016, hopefully we’ll see a number of bills that get put forward that are not what I’d call pre-negotiated -- that reflect the will of the House and that we put the pressure on the Senate to address."

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