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Boehner's Gift to Ryan: A Clean Slate

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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Representative Paul Ryan appeared to have extracted very little from Republican insurgents in the House Freedom Conference: enough votes to be elected speaker this week, but not unanimity.

On Monday, however, there were reports that Speaker John Boehner may be close to a deal on the big must-past items remaining for 2015: a debt limit increase and funding for the government for the rest of the fiscal year. Such a turn of events would correspond to what Ryan should have (and may have, behind the scenes) demanded: that the departing speaker get the blame for raising the debt limit and agreeing to fund the government without a shutdown. In fact, the deal may solve most of the big contentious items that Congress is trying to resolve this year, including the Highway Trust Fund and two important Medicare issues.

QuickTake Speaker of the House

It also would be the only way to prevent Ryan from turning into Conservative Enemy No. 1.

Matt Yglesias explains how that could happen without a deal. Short version: The radicals will make impossible demands on the debt limit and/or the government funding bill, and when mainstream House conservatives eventually give in to reality and allow those items to pass without major conservative victories, Ryan will be castigated as a total sell-out.

In the current environment, the end result of a shutdown showdown (and debt limit battles) would be that something would pass eventually that both the Republican Speaker of the House and the Democratic president could accept. This could happen just before the deadline, or it could be after a 10-week government shutdown, but it would be a compromise that wouldn't include every Republican demand.

When Boehner has sought agreement with President Barack Obama in the past, he often was confronted by the “hope yes, vote no” caucus of his party -- mainstream conservative Republicans who wanted the speaker to cut a deal that they could then oppose publicly. The congressional scholar Sarah Binder speculated that perhaps Ryan’s prestige was high enough among conservatives that mainstream conservatives could switch to “hope yes, vote yes” for him.

That’s possible, but Ryan already is facing unrest that would get worse if he cut any deals

Better to let his unpopular predecessor in the job solve the problem. 

Of course, there's a long way between news reports of a possible deal and the president signing something into law. Just coming up with numbers that work for both Democrats and Republicans isn't easy, even when both sides want to compromise. And even if they get there, we don't know how loudly House radicals will squawk, or whether mainstream conservatives will support Boehner, or whether Ryan will be dragged into the fight. Ideally, he should be the leader of the "hope yes, vote no" group -- as long as he's sure the measure has the votes to pass without him. Realistically, however, he may need not only to vote yes but to publicly rally support for any deal.  

Once again, the key group is the mainstream conservatives who make up the bulk of the House Republicans. These are very conservative politicians, but not inclined toward radical tactics. As Frances Lee explains, they really determine what happens in the House; speakers have some independent influence, but they won't last long if they defy the people who put them in the big chair. Even a speaker on his way out must listen to them.

But in this case, it's  possible that the incoming speaker -- who had unusually strong leverage over his conference when Republicans contemplated the abyss had he chosen not to take the job -- made it clear that he would serve only if he didn't have to be blamed for this deal. In any case, Ryan will benefit.

  1. Technically, it's possible that Boehner and a handful of Republicans could pass something over the strong (sincere) objections of the rest of his conference. But even that is dicey -- it's not clear he would have the votes against a real revolt of mainstream conservatives. And a bill that passed that way would be difficult at best to get through the Republican-majority senate.  

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