RACINE, Wis. — For all its power and prestige, the speaker of the House is one of the most thankless jobs in Washington — just ask John Boehner. Now, with Congress barreling toward major fiscal fights this fall, Paul Ryan is about to get a taste of the Boehner treatment — and then some.
Consider what’s on the immediate horizon for the GOP wunderkind: President Donald Trump is ready to shut down the government over his border wall with Mexico. Breitbart has all but declared a renewed, Steve Bannon-led war on GOP leaders, with Ryan in its cross hairs. And conservative lawmakers are exhorting the speaker to play hardball on raising the debt ceiling — even as the White House demands a no-strings-attached increase to calm nervous creditors.
“Conservatives aren’t going to roll over when it comes to the debt ceiling,” said Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker (R-N.C.) in a Tuesday interview. “I can tell you: It’s going to be a battle.”
Asked about Ryan’s leadership on such matters, Walker added: “I would like to see his genius in policy manifest itself… Behind closed doors, there are strong conversations when it comes to holding the line for the will of the bulk of the conference. And I would like to see some strength in that area.”
When Ryan reluctantly took the reins of the House Republican Conference in late 2015, he went out of his way to say he was only heeding the call of duty and didn’t really want it. Two years later, he faces the most treacherous stretch of his speakership as September showdowns over the budget and debt ceiling approach.
Like Boehner, Ryan will be forced to mediate the long-running hostilities in his conference — between the always-potent Freedom Caucus and a newly-empowered faction of centrists. Only this time, Ryan also has a demanding and unpredictable president thrown into the mix, too.
Trump isn’t making it easy. On Thursday he attacked Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for rejecting his proposed strategy of pairing a debt ceiling increase, a toxic vote for Republicans, with a popular veterans bill to garner more support.
GOP leaders rejected the approach because they ran out of time before recess and worried some Republicans would fume that they got arm-twisted into voting for the debt bill they’d otherwise oppose but for the vets provision.
Trump didn’t care about those sensitivities, tweeting Thursday: “I requested that Mitch M & Paul R tie the Debt Ceiling legislation into the popular V.A. Bill (which just passed) for easy approval…. They didn’t do it so now we have a big deal with Dems holding them up (as usual) on Debt Ceiling approval. Could have been so easy-now a mess!”
That slight came just days after Trump said he’d be willing to shut down the government in order to secure funding for his border wall — a strategy that could backfire on the Republican congressional majority in next year’s midterms. And as if that’s wasn’t enough stress, Ryan will almost certainly be forced to rely on Democrats for the fall’s big fiscal votes — a move that was eventually Boehner’s undoing.
No one is saying Ryan’s job is in jeopardy. But the way he handles all these situations could well determine his standing and popularity within the GOP.
Meanwhile, frustration is mounting among Republican voters that Congress failed to deliver on campaign promises like repealing Obamacare. While Ryan points out that the House passed legislation and it was the Senate that came up short, the public isn’t necessarily interested in that distinction.
Neither, it seems, are Trump and his allies. In fact, the president has shown he has no compunction about blaming Republicans in Congress for not enacting his agenda. And while Bannon engaged politely with Ryan and GOP leaders in the White House, he’s made clear that he plans to pound them relentlessly from his new perch atop Breitbart.
“You can see the emerging theme from Trump world is that Trump doesn’t fail; Trump has been betrayed,” said longtime Ryan acquaintance Charlie Sykes, a prominent conservative commentator based in Wisconsin. “They’re going to line up the scapegoats… No matter how much [Ryan] appeases Trump, it won’t take long for Trump for turn on him.”
Most of Trump’s ire has lately centered on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in retribution for failing to pass a bill to repeal Obamacare. But the Trump-Ryan marriage has always been one more of convenience than true love, so many are wondering how much longer it will last.