In Trump Standoff, Ryan Risks Isolation Early in Speakership

  • Seven months into job, Ryan is winning praise for his style
  • As more Republicans back Trump, pressure increases on Ryan

Will Paul Ryan Ever Back Donald Trump?

Eighteen days after declining to endorse Donald Trump, Paul Ryan is starting to look a bit lonely.

That sense of isolation began with the unusual path that Ryan took to becoming speaker of the U.S. House and it’s deepening now as his top Republican lieutenants climb aboard the Trump train.

Ryan faces one of the trickier decisions in his career without the aid of a network of staunch allies. He ascended to the job without working his way up through traditional leadership posts, where past speakers have collected their political teams.

But a long standoff over Trump risks trying Republicans’ patience, particularly if Ryan, slated to chair the party’s July nominating convention in Cleveland, doesn’t end up endorsing the billionaire. 

It’s not clear how much longer he can hold out. 

"I also think that as the speaker sees this enthusiasm from his members -- and one right after the other his key committee chairs, and subcommittee chairs, coming on board -- that Mr. Ryan wants to get to yes," said Representative Chris Collins of New York, one of Trump’s earliest supporters in the House. "Mr. Trump is going to win. It would be better, sooner, to have Mr. Ryan on board."

Even as the standoff with Trump continues, Ryan still has to manage his unruly chamber, where he has had mixed success in trying to carry out the regular legislative business. He has not been able to unite his caucus around a budget resolution yet, for example, but is pressing ahead with spending bills, a Puerto Rico debt measure and other legislation before a lengthy summer recess.

Policy Wonk

Ryan, after 16 years of building a reputation as a policy wonk, had the speakership thrust upon him suddenly last October by his colleagues.

This has left the Wisconsin Republican with the freedom to pursue his gambit of jousting with Trump over the nominee’s conservative credentials. But it’s also left him without the sort of "kitchen cabinet" of political vets that past speakers have had around to chew over problems -- and then go out and trumpet the speaker’s position inside the caucus and out.

The contrast with his predecessor, John Boehner, is striking. Boehner relied on a close cadre of people who met regularly in private, many of whom had over the years moved up through House ranks with him. But over time, many House Republicans came to resent the Ohioan for repeatedly relying on only a few members to devise legislative strategy and direction, and then expecting that the Republican conference would go along.

Gym Chats

Ryan, instead, hosts member dinners and weekly lunches with a cross-section of Republican leaders. He communicates regularly with other lawmakers by text message, late-night meetings and policy chats in the gym. He’s also been a prodigious fundraiser for fellow Republicans.

This more more inclusive approach, which includes empowering legislative committees, has won him goodwill.

"I think it’s a significant improvement," Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, a leading member of the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, said of how Ryan measures up against Boehner. Huelskamp, who often locked horns with Boehner, now holds a seat on the powerful Steering Committee and praises Ryan for following through on promises to bring bottom-up inclusiveness to House Republican decision-making.

"It’s just a more open, accessible, easier style," Cole said. "So, if people disagree, they seem to disagree agreeably. I hear very few complaints about Paul Ryan’s style or him as a person."

Also helping Ryan is that he didn’t campaign for speaker, so he doesn’t have to deliver on campaign promises in return for lawmakers’ support.

"The fact is, the job sought him, he didn’t seek the job," said Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma. "I mean, people know he could walk away tomorrow and he would be fine with that. And Janna would probably love it," said Cole, referring to Ryan’s wife.

Limited Patience

A long standoff with Trump, however, could try many Republicans’ patience, particularly if Ryan doesn’t end up endorsing the nominee.

Representative Tom Marino of Pennsylvania said the Trump holdouts include both those within the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, as well as moderates.

"But if I were a betting man -- which I am not -- he’s eventually going to come out and endorse Donald Trump," said Marino, who backs both Trump and Ryan.

The No. 2, 3 and 4 Republicans -- Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Whip Steve Scalise and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who chairs the Republican Conference -- have all backed the New York billionaire now, along with dozens of other members.

Meetings Ongoing

Ryan told reporters this week that his team and the Trump camp are continuing to meet and are making progress.

Ryan is "the representative of all members of the House. That means he has to be a bridge between Trump supporters and the never-Trump camp in his own caucus. That’s not a tenable position," says Joshua Huder, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute in Washington.

Some polling suggests that Trump now is more trusted than Ryan among Republicans to lead their party. But pollster John Zogby says there is a longer game likely being played, with an eye toward Trump’s possible defeat in November.

"Ryan is really beholden to no one. In that sense, it might be in Ryan’s long-term interest to just back away and just do what he has to do," said Zogby. "Protect his brand."

‘Own Man’

"I think he’s pretty free to do what he wants -- his own man," says Representative Daniel Webster of Florida, a conservative who ran for speaker against both Ryan and Boehner. Webster gives Ryan high marks as speaker in the seven months since taking the gavel after Boehner’s ouster, though he acknowledges some hiccups. 

"He knows what he wants to do," Webster said. "Sometimes it’s just harder to make that happen."

There are some quiet voices of discontent in the House, with some Republicans beginning to complain quietly that Ryan is sometimes hesitant to make decisions. They cite Republicans’ failure to vote on a budget resolution and a slow timetable for delivering a promised policy agenda for the caucus going into the election. 

Inclusive Approach

The speaker has said the policy agenda will be rolled out before July. But a senior Republican says work on the package has gone on for months and that Ryan is missing a chance to deliver a positive agenda even as he continues to wrestle with having Trump at the top of his party’s ticket.

Ryan makes clear he is still trying to unite his caucus around these ideas, a necessarily lengthy process.

"The old way under Boehner, this budget thing would have been brought up, and it would be either yes or no -- take it or leave it," said Webster. "Ryan wants to keep it open." Now, Webster says House Republican rank-and-file have to get used to the "learning pains" that they have the ability to affect the outcome.

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