WASHINGTON – Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan is seeking unity in a place it’s rarely found, telling House Republicans he will serve as their speaker only if they embrace him by week’s end as their consensus candidate.
It’s a big “if” for a House GOP that’s careened from one crisis to another in recent years, with a compromise-averse band of hardliners forcing a partial government shutdown two years ago, ultimately driving current Speaker John Boehner to announce he’ll resign and then scaring off his No. 2.
Boehner is moving quickly to try to resolve the issue, telling Republicans Wednesday morning that the GOP will meet next Wednesday and vote on a candidate to replace him. The full House would then choose its new speaker on Thursday – if all goes according to plan.
Meanwhile, Ryan, the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, has been dragged into seeking a job he never wanted. As he announced late Tuesday that he would seek the speakership, Ryan made clear he would do so only with conditions. He wants the endorsement of the major caucuses of the House, including the hardline Freedom Caucus.
That’s the group whose threats against Boehner pushed him to announce he would resign by month’s end and forced Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to abruptly drop his campaign to replace him.
Coming days will tell if Ryan can win the support of the Freedom Caucus or become the latest victim in an ideological battle that has all but paralyzed Congress and split the broader Republican Party as well. Outsider candidates, especially Donald Trump, have roiled the GOP presidential campaign to the consternation of mainstream party leaders who fear the fighting could lead to a third straight Democratic White House administration.
“I came to the conclusion that this is a very dire moment, not just for Congress, not just for the Republican Party, but for our country. And I think our country is in desperate need of leadership,” Ryan said.
“What I told members is if you can agree to these requests and if I can truly be a unifying figure, then I will gladly serve, and if I am not unifying, that is fine as well – I will be happy to stay where I am.”
Ryan had avoided getting drawn into the speaker’s contest, saying he would prefer to stay on as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, which he’s described as his dream job.
But with chaos ahead and the prospect of even more of it if he passed on the job, Ryan reconsidered under pressure from party leaders. Congress is hurtling toward an early November deadline to raise the federal borrowing limit or invite a first-ever default, and a deadline to pass spending legislation or risk a government shutdown will follow in early December.
The 45-year-old Ryan gave his colleagues until Friday to express their support. Members of the Freedom Caucus quickly made clear they remained to be convinced.
“I think he has to campaign for it. We’ve heard one speech,” said Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa. “We’re willing to listen but it’s the beginning of the conversation as far as I’m concerned.”
“I think there are other candidates in this race, and I want to hear what they have to say,” said another Freedom Caucus member, Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado.
The other candidates, nearly a dozen, all lack Ryan’s stature and broad support and it’s not clear if any of them could gather the needed backing to become speaker.
Ryan laid out a number of conditions under which he would serve, aimed at defusing an atmosphere of constant chaos and crisis that has hung over the House as tea party-backed lawmakers pushed for confrontation with the White House and demanded changes that the strictures of divided government never could deliver.
He said he encourages changes to rules and procedures – something eagerly sought by members of the Freedom Caucus who claim they’ve been shut out of legislating in the House. But he said any such changes must be made as a team, with input from all. Ryan also sought a change in the process for a “motion to vacate the chair” – the procedure conservatives were threatening against Boehner, which would have resulted in a floor vote on his speakership and ultimately drove him to resign.
“He said he’s willing to take arrows in his chest, but not in his back,” said Rep. Peter King of New York.
Ryan himself told lawmakers in the meeting that in the wake of Boehner and McCarthy, “I won’t be the third log on the bonfire.”
And Ryan made clear that family comes first and said he would be spending less time on the road than Boehner, who traveled nearly every weekend raising money for the party. Ryan, by contrast, has three school-age kids in Janesville, Wisconsin, and wants to be able to continue to spend plenty of time with them.
“I genuinely worry about the consequences that my agreeing to serve will have on them. Will they experience the viciousness and incivility that we all face here on a daily basis?” Ryan said. “But my greatest worry, my greatest worry is the consequence of not stepping up, of someday having my own kids ask me, ‘When the stakes were so high, why didn’t you do all you could do, why didn’t you stand and fight for my future?’ “
Associated Press writers Alan Fram and Andrew Taylor contributed.