House Republicans are about to blow through a statutory deadline to pass an annual budget, a major embarrassment for Speaker Paul Ryan that raises questions about his stewardship of the House despite his high profile on the national stage.
A day after rampant speculation forced him to call a news conference to deny he wants to run for president this year, Ryan insisted Wednesday that he hadn’t given up on the House’s obligation to pass its annual spending blueprint, even though the Friday deadline looks impossible to meet.
“You know me, I want to pass a budget,” said the Wisconsin Republican, his party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee. “I think we should pass a budget and we’re still talking with our members on how we can get that done.”
Yet success looks unlikely as the same tea party lawmakers who ousted Ryan’s predecessor, John Boehner, rebel against a bipartisan spending deal Boehner cut with President Barack Obama last fall before leaving office. Boehner himself, despite his troubles with the hard-liners in his caucus, met the budget deadline each of the five years of his speakership.
The situation has left numerous House Republicans deeply frustrated. Yet Ryan himself has managed to remain popular, as all sides continue to profess admiration for his communication skills and his patient attempts to involve lawmakers in his deliberations.
“It’s extremely frustrating,” GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota said of the imminent budget failure. He praised Ryan’s style, but added: “It’s admirable in some ways but not producing results.”
Ryan himself chaired the House Budget Committee for much of Boehner’s speakership and crafted the “Ryan Budget” that would have transformed Medicare into a voucher program for millions. It never became law, but he did cut a deal with Senate Democrats and the White House that enhanced his profile as a charismatic, policy-focused conservative.
Ryan has repeatedly lambasted Democrats when they didn’t get budgets done while in congressional control, even backing a law that would have cut off lawmakers’ paychecks if they failed to pass a budget.
Yet the reality is that failing to pass a budget has few real-world consequences for lawmakers, and GOP leaders in both the House and Senate are instead moving ahead with the annual spending bills that determine agency operating budgets.
That process is just getting underway, though it too could fall prey to divisions in the House. Democrats are likely to oppose many of the bills if they’re laced with conservative policy “riders,” while conservatives have problems with spending levels.
The budget is not the only area where House Republicans are faltering under Ryan’s leadership. Very little significant legislation has been moving, and negotiations over a bill to address Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis have proceeded in fits and starts. It’s unclear whether a just-released Puerto Rico bill backed by Ryan will attract the needed support.
But Ryan has aimed his sights higher than the nitty-gritty of legislating, putting committees to work on developing policies on issues from health care to national security to poverty that can serve as a “governing agenda” for the GOP. He’s pledged to release the proposals ahead of the GOP convention in July, giving his Republicans a program to run on should they want to distance themselves from the eventual GOP nominee.
Ryan is helping ensure that they have the campaign cash to get elected. He raised $17.2 million in the first three months of 2016 and transferred more than $11 million to the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Ryan made clear Tuesday that he himself will not be the GOP nominee, hastily calling a news conference to try to shut down speculation that he could emerge as his party’s standard-bearer if front-runner Donald Trump or the other candidates – Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich – flame out at a contested convention. Party leaders fear both Trump and top challenger Cruz could spell certain defeat in November, costing the GOP not only the White House but control of the Senate too.
“Let me say again, I’m not going to be our party’s nominee,” Ryan said. “But I’ll also be clear about something else: not running does not mean I’m going to disappear.”
On the budget, Boehner confronted a comparable situation in 2014 to where Ryan is now. It was the second year of a budget deal with Obama – negotiated by Ryan – and some conservatives were reluctant to go along with higher agency budget levels. Boehner was working with a smaller GOP majority but had an advantage since conservatives were relatively sheepish after the 2013 government shutdown that they sparked.
Now, in a hyper-polarized presidential election year – and after toppling Boehner last year – conservatives aren’t falling into line.