Speaker Ryan Sails Through the Easy Part

Passage of tax and spending measures doesn't mean restive Republicans will fall into line.

Off to a strong start.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is riding high.

Capping a seven-week honeymoon, the 45-year-old House speaker navigated the huge year-end spending and tax bills through Congress without any government breakdown. He's promised to set a "bold" conservative agenda for Republicans and has the party's right-wing caucus, which made the previous speaker's life miserable, largely quiescent.

Speaker of the House

As prominent Republicans look at the chaotic presidential race and contemplate a possible deadlocked result, Ryan's name rolls off their lips. Ryan doesn't carry the baggage of the other name that keeps coming up, Mitt Romney, and would be a fresher contrast to Hillary Clinton. The Ryan camp knows this is a decided long-shot, but is preparing ways to respond if the idea gains currency.

Fifty-three days, however, does not make a season. Ryan has experienced the easy part; big challenges loom.

The stage was set for the final funding bills in October by former Speaker John Boehner, with Ryan's full support. Boehner then stepped down, frustrated by the rule-or-ruin demands of the so-called Freedom Caucus.

It's a myth, however, that the Freedom Caucus was about to unseat him. Under House rules, any action against the speaker is decided by a majority vote of those present. In addition, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader, out of regard for the institution, was prepared to hold out enough Democratic votes to assure the speakership wasn't vacated.  

Ryan did negotiate the add-ons or riders to the basic year-end measure. Some of these, such as lifting the ban on foreign oil experts, achieved conservative goals. Ryan assuaged some critics by consulting more with right-wing members than his predecessors did.

But the right-wing agenda for the past several elections was to repeal and replace Obamacare; slash spending; cut tax rates; block President Barack Obama's executive actions liberalizing immigration and strengthening environmental rules; and, more recently, defund Planned Parenthood and stop Syrian refugees from entering the U.S.

None of that is in the omnibus bill, thus the headline in Politico: "Conservatives give Ryan a pass on budget deal they despise." Right-wing outsiders weren't as generous: "GOP Sells America Down the River," thundered the website of radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. When the current funding expires next September, with the general election well under way, these movement right politicians are less likely to give passes.

Conversely, the White House is delighted about the end-of-year deals that achieve a lot of the spending goals the administration sought. And even the Republican-orchestrated tax cuts included a number of major anti-poverty measures, at the White House's insistence.

Ryan's relations with Obama have ranged from correct to testy. But last week, as they were discussing the final deal, on the phone, Ryan, who has grown a beard, told the president that some on the angry movement right have even accused him of being a Muslim. The president, who has long faced the same absurd allegation, chuckled.

The speaker would like to secure passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The Obama-backed trade deal has the support of most Republicans, though many Democrats oppose it. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to delay any action until after the election to protect a couple of his politically vulnerable members.

A few weeks ago, Ryan set out what he called a bold mandate for House Republicans: "a complete alternative to the left's agenda." The intent is to lay out a platform for Republicans, particularly the party's presidential candidate, to run on next year.

Therein lies a huge problem. The two current front-runners for the nomination are Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz. Trump's postures on trade and immigration are anathema to Ryan; Cruz is campaigning as a hard-right candidate more in sync with the House's Freedom Caucus than with the speaker.

There rarely has been a congressional leader with more policy bona-fides than Ryan, and he charms much of the commentariat. But it's naïve to suggest that this promises grand opportunities in this Congress or the next one, even if there's a Democratic president.

Successful speakers aren't policy wonks or charmers. They are tough and calculating with superb political instincts.

We don't know yet if that description fits Ryan.

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