Paul Ryan’s goal: End 2015 on a high note

Paul Ryan’s goal: End 2015 on a high note
© Greg Nash

Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanDems make history, and other takeaways from Tuesday's primaries Ironworker and star of viral video wins Dem primary for Speaker Ryan's seat Live results: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Vermont, Connecticut hold primaries MORE has been winning kudos from GOP colleagues during his first seven weeks as Speaker, but the most important reviews will come later this week, when he brings major year-end tax and spending bills to the House floor.

Strong GOP support for both measures would represent an early vote of confidence in the Wisconsin Republican and the “bottom-up” approach he’s adopted to decentralize power in the GOP conference.

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“Are we liberating members of Congress to be more effective in their jobs? Yes we are. Are we giving people more say so on how Congress operates? Yes we are. Are we decentralizing power in the way Congress is run and managed? Absolutely,” Ryan said Tuesday at a Politico event.

“One of the things that I’ve learned ... is we can’t just consolidate the power of this place. We need to decentralize it and let members do their jobs.”

His predecessor, Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerWomen poised to take charge in Dem majority Freedom Caucus ponders weakened future in minority Consultant to Virginia Senate candidate compared GOP establishment to 'house negro': report MORE (R-Ohio), frequently struggled to attract GOP votes for last-minute spending agreements he struck with Democrats.

Only 75 Republicans backed the March deal to fund the Homeland Security Department, for example, while 167 opposed it.

The GOP tally wasn’t much better for the two-year budget deal Boehner reached with fellow congressional leaders and President Obama before he resigned: Just 79 Republicans voted for the agreement, which paved the way for the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill.

If Ryan can round up at least 124 GOP votes — a majority of his 246-member conference — on both bills, it could signal a detente in the civil war that has been raging for years between centrist and conservative House Republicans.

But if he falls short of that mark, it may mean that even a fresh face and new governing style can’t bring together the fractured GOP conference.

For weeks, Ryan has been laying the groundwork for a successful vote on the spending bill. He directed Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and the panel’s subcommittee chiefs to hold listening sessions so rank-and-file members could help shape spending bills on the front end.

Despite his expertise as the former chairman of the Budget and Ways and Means committees, Ryan largely deferred to Rogers, giving him space to negotiate with Democrats to whittle down a list of more than 1,000 policy amendments, aides said. The Speaker didn’t step in until about two weeks ago to wrap up loose ends and finalize the deal.    

Ryan also began holding an additional GOP conference meeting on Thursday mornings to give his members another opportunity each week to sound off on policy issues.

And the Speaker has continuously briefed his members on when and exactly how the spending and tax packages would come together, even as he kept specific details of the twin deals close to the vest. On a conference call with members Monday night, Ryan reiterated his pledge that lawmakers would have three days to read the legislation before casting their vote.

His methodical approach has been evident at the negotiating table as well. To show House conservatives he wouldn’t cut a quick deal with Democrats, Ryan said he ignored the original “arbitrary” Dec. 11 deadline to fund the government, forcing Congress to pass a short-term extension to give negotiators more time to “get it right.”

Ryan has also been making overtures to the House Freedom Caucus, the band of roughly 40 conservatives who caused Boehner endless headaches this year and eventually pressured him to step down in late October.

He restructured the Speaker-led Steering Committee, a move that gave rabble-rouser Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) a seat on the panel, which doles out committee gavels and assignments. And Ryan has begun huddling weekly with an advisory team that includes leaders from the three major GOP groups: Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Republican Study Committee Chairman Bill Flores (R-Texas), and moderate Tuesday Group co-chairmen Reps. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) and Bob Dold (R-Ill.).

Another way Ryan’s been pushing power down to the rank and file is by appointing lawmakers to House-Senate conference committees who have never been given a chance to serve on one.

Ryan “has had a very aggressive and inclusive approach, including meaningful input from the rank and file,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), a Freedom caucus co-founder who led the campaign to oust Boehner, told The Hill on Tuesday. “But ultimately we must get back to a normal appropriations process” that allows spending bills to clear the Senate with just 50 votes rather than the usual 60.

Meadows said he won’t make up his mind on how he’ll vote on the spending bill until he gets a chance to read it but that he’s leaning yes on the separate package renewing tax breaks for businesses and individuals because it “sets the stage for comprehensive tax reform.”

Even if conservatives don’t back the spending deal in the end, few are prepared to blame Ryan. The budget deal Boehner struck with the White House this fall busted spending caps set by the 2011 sequester, leaving the new Speaker to wrestle with Democrats over policy riders.

A GOP-favored rider that would toughen screening for refugees from Syria and Iraq was expected to be cut from the final spending package, though the legislation had yet to be released as of press time.

With the refugees provision included, more than 140 Republicans would back the omnibus, one Freedom Caucus leader predicted. But without it, only 80 Republicans would get on board.

“The guy got delivered a piece of crap” from Boehner, the Freedom Caucus leader told The Hill. “He has been trying to do the best he can to get out of this situation, but there is not a single person who could be doing any better than what Ryan’s done.”