The uniter.

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Paul Ryan's Conditions

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Will the radicals of the House Freedom Caucus accept the conditions Paul Ryan laid down Tuesday night for taking on the speaker post? 

His demands -- or at least those he has made public -- boil down to two things. The less important one is a reduced travel and fundraising schedule that would allow him to have a semblance of a family life. That shouldn’t be a problem: A small campaign-finance hit is a minor price to pay for getting the House back on track.

More important is his demand that the radicals express their strong public support for him (which, as I explained, he absolutely had to do). Moreover, he is asking for a rules package that would include altering the “motion to vacate” that Freedom Caucus members threatened to use against Speaker John Boehner, contributing to his decision to step down.

This request  is fascinating. Scholars believe the motion to vacate isn’t much of a threat: It isn't clear that a speaker’s opponents could actually force a vote. And even if they did, it isn't clear the Democrats would go along, though they might try to cut a deal in return for allowing the speaker to stay.

My best guess is that Ryan included this demand just to humiliate the radicals, though political scientist Dave Hopkins suspects Ryan really doesn’t want the job and is trying to taunt the Freedom Caucus into opposing him (see Sean Trende’s alternate view). It’s also a signal that even if he gets their support now, he doesn’t trust them, and can only rely on procedural changes to weaken future challenges.

At any rate, forcing the radicals into a public display of support is a good start, but it’s not sufficient. It leaves intact the issue of the impending votes on increasing the debt limit and funding the government for the rest of the fiscal year -- both of which have been poisonous for the speaker in the Boehner era.

And Boehner probably won't be able to clear away these heavy lifts for Ryan: The schedule for the transition announced Wednesday calls for the House to vote on a new speaker in eight days, which probably is too soon to resolve the debt limit and certainly too soon for appropriations, which require a complex deal with the Democrats. So Ryan could demand (and may already have demanded) that the radicals allow him to get to a deal without criticism.

So what will the radicals do? They’re not going to get a better speaker than Ryan, even though he’s attempting to embarrass them and, perhaps, defang them a bit. In fact, we still don’t know exactly what they want. They may be under the delusion that the 40 or so of them can bully the other 400 members of the House, the entire Senate, and the president into doing whatever they want. If that’s the case, they won’t accept Ryan’s conditions. The same is true if all they want is chaos.

Yet they haven’t proved they are willing and able to defeat a speaker candidate in a floor battle, and their claims that they are prepared to do so could be bluff and bluster. In that case, they could buckle.

Political scientists usually groan when people say "this time is different," but if anything, the Congress scholars I talk to and read are the ones running around with their hair on fire: This time, they say, really is different, with unpredictable outcomes for policy, how the House works and perhaps even for the larger political party order of things. The House Freedom Caucus has until Friday to decide. So stay tuned.

  1. And for what it's worth odds are he'd backslide on it anyway, at least to some extent. A lot easier to pledge it now (and smart to do), but hard to say "no" to a members who believe they are in trouble without a little more money. 

  2. I suppose we also have to entertain the possibility that either the radicals, Ryan, or both don’t actually understand House rules well enough to understand that the motion to vacate by itself isn’t much of a threat.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net