Ryan Carves Conservative Path as Trump Agenda Stays Elusive

  • House Republicans pushing platform for lawmakers’ campaigns
  • Trump has yet to publicy embrace, or reject, Ryan’s agenda

House Speaker Paul Ryan is pushing out a detailed Republican platform that hews to conservative orthodoxy in an election year when Donald Trump has found success in being unorthodox and vague.

It’s a highly unusual move -- a top lawmaker trying to set the party’s agenda ahead of the presidential nominee. And it raises the question of whether Trump, who has shown little interest in Ryan’s proposals, might adopt them, or just ignore them altogether.

Ryan is issuing a six-volume policy agenda for House colleagues to campaign on ahead of November elections. The fifth part, to be announced Wednesday, focuses on replacing President Barack Obama’s health-care law. That will be followed by a final chapter of proposed tax changes.

Trump and his aides have been quietly sounding out a number of Republicans on their policy plans, but the billionaire has shown little sign of adopting any in his public remarks.

"I worry whether Trump will actually embrace the conservative ideals that both the House and Senate conservatives would like to see happen," Representative Reid Ribble, a Wisconsin Republican, said. "Clearly, there’s differences of opinion" on such things as trade.

Ryan’s Choice

Ryan’s effort could become a framework for the speaker to begin distancing himself -- and fellow Republicans in Congress -- from a controversial nominee. But for now, Ryan insists that Trump is more likely to be a partner.

Trump’s lack of policy experience could actually open up legislative possibilities for Ryan, says Representative Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, co-chairman of a bloc of House Republican moderates.

"I guess the opportunities here are that Donald Trump’s policy positions are not well developed. And that gives House Republicans an opportunity to put flesh on the policy bones of Mr. Trump," said Dent, who hasn’t endorsed Trump. He said the policy agenda is one way to start doing that.

"With Donald Trump, I think, everything is negotiable," Dent added.

Significant Gaps

A number of policy differences with Trump have seeped through already. The presumed Republican presidential nominee’s controversial comments on a judge’s Mexican heritage and his re-touting of a call for a ban on Muslim travel after the Orlando, Florida, night club shootings have largely overshadowed Ryan’s rollout.

With five months until the election, some of Ryan’s House colleagues are suggesting a simpler approach to unifying with Trump, at least on the campaign trail.

"I’ve been hoping for a while that Newt Gingrich would get in the middle and mediate between Trump and Ryan, put down a ‘Contract with America,’ promises on paper -- not big vision stuff, 10 things or so," said Representative David Brat of Virginia, referring to the former speaker of the House.

In the first four of the six policy papers, Ryan has released 137 pages of proposals on battling poverty, bolstering national security, easing regulations and scaling back executive power. 

New Ideas

Those have included new ideas on improving retirement plans, cybersecurity defense and offense, and imposing regulatory limits on each agency, and stepping up enforcement of congressional subpoenas of agencies.

Trump could still choose to adopt some -- or all -- of Ryan’s agenda if he’s looking for a ready-made policy platform. But the two men have very substantive divisions or key issues, including free trade and immigration.

Asked about Ryan Sunday on NBC’s "Meet the Press," Trump chose to mention something Ryan as speaker has had trouble accomplishing: "I hope to see Speaker Ryan focusing on the budget, it’s a big job, to get the budget down the way it should be."

Ryan hasn’t expressed any disappointment that the House Republican agenda has been ignored by Trump in public. The speaker met with the billionaire at least twice during his monthlong deliberation before endorsing the party’s nominee. 

"I have spoken with our nominee a number of times about our agenda, about conservative principles and about the policies we need to put in place in order to save the country," Ryan said Sunday on NBC’s "Meet the Press." "And we have so much more common ground than any other thing."

Ryan reiterated he’ll continue to have disagreements with the New York businessman, will speak out when he feels it necessary, and doesn’t plan to rescind his endorsement. In fact, when Ryan did formally endorse Trump, he said that their conversations had left him "confident he would help us turn the ideas in this agenda into laws to help improve people’s lives."

In Progress

The Ryan agenda has taken on added significance with Trump’s ascendancy, but it was launched last year, before Trump had assumed clear front-runner status.

The origin appears to be Ryan’s conclusion that he and Mitt Romney should have put out their own detailed agenda during their unsuccessful 2012 White House bid. One senior House Republican says Ryan has often told colleagues that he had pushed for such an idea, but that Romney’s aides didn’t listen to him. A person in Ryan’s office who sought anonymity disputes this claim and says he did not push for the idea of a specific agenda.

Ever since he became speaker last fall, Ryan has been focused on constructing what he calls this year’s "Better Way" House agenda for candidates.

Putting out a list of legislative ideals, of course, does not guarantee those ideals will ever become law. Many of the proposals contained in the plans have already been passed by the House in some form, and so far been ignored by the Senate.

‘Tough Times’

With Trump at the top of the ticket, there’s also now the prospect that even a Republican president may not necessarily want to go along. For instance, in the national security proposal, the House Republican plan does not include Trump’s proposal to construct a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border or his accusation that the NATO alliance is obsolete.

"There could be some tough times," agrees Representative Daniel Webster of Florida, who ran against Ryan last fall to become the successor to John Boehner as speaker. But Webster does not rule out that a Speaker Ryan and a President Trump "might also be a good combination," and that the speaker’s agenda project could help.

"Trump would be a guy who’ll like to propose things, but he’d be working with a wonk who’ll then say: ‘To do that, we first need to do this, this, and this’," said Webster.

But Dent says that as Ryan and other Republicans seek to push their conservative agenda on Trump, they also should not forget Trump "shattered the myth" that the Republican primary voter is necessarily ideologically doctrinaire, "and people know he is not a pure conservative and don’t care."

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