Ryan Remains Defiant After Sit-In Tests His Control of House

Rep. Israel on House Sit-In
  • Republican speaker heckled on floor by protesting Democrats
  • Dispute centered on demands for votes on gun-curb measures

It should have been a good week for Speaker Paul Ryan, who was completing his long-planned rollout of a six-part House Republican policy agenda for 2017.

Instead, he found himself early Thursday being openly mocked -- by Democrats on the House floor shouting "Shame! Shame!" -- before the chamber was gaveled into an early week-long recess.

"Speaker Ryan, you can run, but you can’t hide!" Representative Bobby Rush of Illinois declared earlier in the spontaneous sit-in where Democrats commandeered the floor for 25 straight hours to demand votes on gun curbs.

Making matters worse, Ryan’s Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, was busy holding multiple votes on gun-related amendments. House conservatives were off having an emergency meeting to complain about Ryan’s decision to deny votes on some proposed conservative amendments to a spending bill. And Ryan, who is expected to serve as chairman of the party’s national convention next month in Cleveland, remains at an awkward distance from Donald Trump, the nominee he will help crown.

Ryan, who often talks about how he was reluctantly drafted into the job of speaker, is finding out how lonely it can be at the top.

"At the moment, Speaker Ryan looks like the substitute teacher who’s lost control of the room," said Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute. "This could all be forgotten in a month or so, but he has to get the room under control."

‘Dangerous Precedent’

Ryan displayed no public sign that he is feeling the pressure, instead sounding a defiant tone in blasting Democrats for setting a "dangerous precedent" with their conduct on the House floor.

"I’m not going to dwell on the decorum of the House here today, other than to say we are not going to allow stunts like this to stop us from carrying out the people’s business," he told reporters Thursday.

And Republicans followed his lead throughout the Democratic sit-in, letting him guide them in a rushed path toward an early recess.

"You have to try hard to not get along with Paul Ryan," said Representative Reid Ribble, a fellow representative from Wisconsin who is retiring from Congress. He called Ryan "extraordinarily intelligent" and someone who as speaker is "trying to navigate this the best he can."

Tough Challenges

But Ryan also had to scrap a significant part of the week’s planned agenda as he sought to reassert control over the chamber.

"Isolated might be a good way to describe Ryan, though standing up to the Democrats and calling out the sit-in as a political stunt was no doubt strongly cheered by his conference," says Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Ryan is dealing with a set of challenges that, taken together, are arguably tougher than what his predecessors faced, including John Boehner of Ohio, who resigned amid a rebellion from party conservatives.

Ryan’s aim has been to run a functioning, serious majority that takes stances and deals with hard issues like Zika and poverty. And although he lost control of the House floor for a stretch this week, Ryan has still been able to shepherd through some of his top priorities, including a bill to address Puerto Rico’s crippling debt crisis.

Avoiding ‘Minefields’

Ron Bonjean, a former top Republican aide to House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, says he gives Ryan credit for working to navigate the complicated splits in his caucus without stepping onto any “minefields.”

“He sticks to the role of protecting House Republican colleagues as opposed to falling into a trap of throwing Democrats off the House floor or engaging in a feud with Donald Trump,” Bonjean said.

Ryan has been saddled with trying to forge his brand of conservative Republicanism in the shadow of the unpredictable Trump. The Wisconsin Republican was hammered by some in his party for hedging initially on endorsing Trump, and since has been vilified by others for doing so.

He’s also been caught in a no-win vortex of vowing to speak out whenever he thinks Trump has said something that defies conservative values, such as a Muslim travel ban, even while sticking to his endorsement.

Freedom Caucus

But Ryan’s troubles have not all been tied to the New York billionaire.

While Ryan preaches a conservative vision and he champions the open process of House deliberations, the far-right House Freedom Caucus called an emergency meeting this week over concern that Ryan was maneuvering to block some conservative amendments to the spending bill that funds the Treasury Department and other agencies.

Ryan has explained to fellow House Republicans that his newly instituted process is aimed at smoothing the path to pass more spending bills by preventing "poison pill" amendments that Democrats could push under a more open procedure.

After the meeting, caucus Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio said he thought his group’s concerns would be ironed out with Ryan and his leadership team.

Massie Unsatisfied

But Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky remained unsatisfied about the status of his amendment to block the District of Columbia from spending money to enforce a law allowing the local government to create gun-free zones.

Massie complained Wednesday on Fox Business News that his amendment was being blocked. "Unfortunately, Speaker Ryan doesn’t want to let me have a vote on that so, you know, maybe I’ll go sit in on the floor of the House as well," he said, in a sarcastic reference to the Democratic sit-in. 

In an earlier interview with Bloomberg News, Massie said Ryan’s new limits were a reversal of his incoming promise that he’d be a "regular order" speaker and allow an open process. He also said he believed it was as much intended to protect moderate Republicans and Ryan himself from tough votes on conservative measures as it was to keep Republicans from having to vote on Democratic amendments.

"I think it’s a step in the wrong direction. And it’s a step toward giving the speaker more authority over what happens rather than let the people’s House work its will," he said.

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