Speaker Ryan faces crucial stretch

Paul RyanPaul RyanWhy Mariel Cuban criminals deserve amnesty (and Anti-Castro Republicans should support it) GOP agrees on one thing: ObamaCare taxes must go Ryan reminds lawmakers to be on time for votes MORE is about to enter what could be the most critical month yet of his Speakership. 

But by the end of March, what will define success for the wonky Wisconsin Republican?

Despite holding power at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, Republicans are grappling with intense intraparty divisions over plans to repeal and replace ­ObamaCare, reform the tax code and build a border wall. 

It’s a difficult balancing act for the 47-year-old Ryan. As Speaker, he committed to a “bottom-up” approach that empowers committees to draft and mark up these proposals.

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But Ryan is also under enormous pressure to notch some major legislative victories for Republicans, meaning he may have to take a more hands-on role in the coming weeks to help whip votes and shepherd some bills to the finish line.

“The Speaker must have at least two substantial legislative initiatives on the president’s desk for signatures by the end of March, or the American people will start to question where Congress is and why they can’t get things done,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), an ally of President Trump. Meadows, chairman of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus, is part of Ryan’s team of congressional advisers.

Passage of a $15 billion to $20 billion supplemental spending bill to pay for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border could happen relatively quickly. But some border-state Republicans, including Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynCornyn: Passing Senate healthcare bill by July 4 ‘optimistic’ Sasse has 'nothing to announce' on GOP ObamaCare repeal Manhattan prosecutor: Gun law reciprocity bill ‘supported, I am sure, by ISIS’ MORE (R-Texas), have argued that a giant wall makes “no sense” along some stretches of the southern border. 

Property rights are another big challenge given that much of the border sits along private land. And, of course, GOP deficit hawks may balk at the multibillion-dollar price tag of the wall, even though Trump has vowed he’ll get Mexico to reimburse the U.S. 

Before anything else happens, Capitol Hill Republicans will try to fulfill a top campaign promise: repealing ­ObamaCare. The House is going first, hoping to quickly pass a repeal-and-replace package and build some momentum for Senate action, but GOP fissures have already started forming in the lower chamber.

During last week’s Presidents Day recess, furious constituents gave GOP lawmakers an earful at public town halls around the country, warning them to keep their hands off ­ObamaCare. The highly publicized protests, one member predicted, could spook still-on-the-fence Republicans and derail the GOP’s efforts to fully repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Meanwhile, Ryan’s getting pulled in the other direction by conservatives in the Freedom Caucus who’ve insisted the House take up a much tougher repeal bill from 2015. That legislation would swiftly kill core elements of the ACA, including ­ObamaCare taxes and Medicaid expansion — an approach that moderate House Republicans and some GOP senators see as too drastic.

The chatter in some conservative circles is that if the Speaker keeps pushing for a watered-down repeal bill, critics will dub it “RyanCare.”

“As long as the American people see us moving forward on bold conservative ideas, they will understand some items take longer than others to pass,” said Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), another Freedom Caucus leader who backs the 2015 plan. 

“What they won’t accept is if we get scared and move away from our conservative agenda,” he added.

Earlier this year, Ryan, a former chairman of the Ways and Means and Budget committees, said he wanted to move the repeal-and-replace package through the House by the end of the “first quarter,” meaning the end of March.

But House committees have been slow to make progress. GOP sources say they hope the Energy and Commerce panel can begin marking up the repeal legislation by next week. The Ways and Means Committee may not begin marking up until the week of March 13, sources said. 

That leaves a small window to hammer out the details, whip votes and bring the package to the floor before the end of the month. Don’t be surprised if the House and Senate votes on the repeal-and-replace package slip into early April, a GOP source said.

Coming up short on repeal would be the “most devastating failure” for congressional Republicans, said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), which has ties to billionaire conservative donors Charles and David Koch.

“They talked about it for so many years. Our network has spent tens upon tens of millions of dollars on it. It’s been litigated every campaign cycle,” Phillips said in a recent interview in the Capitol. “If they fail, it would be a devastating blow for them, because so many grassroots activists have given their time and energy” to the cause.

“It would be a deep, deep betrayal.”

But Ryan isn’t showing any visible signs of strain yet. 

“We’ve already met all of the benchmarks we’ve set forward in our 200-day plan outlined at the joint retreat including passing a budget and significant regulatory relief, and we’re now in the midst of Obamacare repeal and replace,” Ryan spokeswoman Ashlee Strong said in an email. “But, getting it done right will always trump timelines.” 

And his allies say they’re confident the Speaker has the discipline, drive and political skills to send some of these complex, big-ticket items to the president’s desk.

“March will be a defining month for the conference, and I am confident Paul will show his ability to lead and have strong policy carry the day that unites us far more than divides us,” said Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), a member of the Ways and Means Committee, which will play an important role this year in both healthcare and tax reform.

One advantage Ryan has going for him: He is close with Vice President Pence and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and is building trust with Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, a onetime political foe.

Those relationships could prove critical whenever Ryan needs Trump — and his Twitter pulpit — to get Republican lawmakers marching in the same direction on tough issues like ­ObamaCare and tax reform.

“We need to get on with solving people’s problems,” Ryan said Monday after he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellErnst polls supporters on Obamacare repeal plan Cornyn: Passing Senate healthcare bill by July 4 ‘optimistic’ Sasse has 'nothing to announce' on GOP ObamaCare repeal MORE (R-Ky.) met with Trump at the White House in preparation for the president’s prime-time address to Congress on Tuesday.

“The goal of what we are trying to achieve is to improve people’s lives,” Ryan added. “We have a bold agenda in front of us, and the president is going to lay it out and why it’s going to make a difference in people’s lives.”

House GOP Policy Committee Chairman Luke Messer (Ind.) said it’s now time for the party “to deliver.”

“Opportunities like this rarely come twice in a generation,” Messer said Monday as legislators returned to the Capitol from the recess. “There is a lot to do, but the two big measuring sticks will be ­ObamaCare repeal and tax reform.”

The GOP’s rewrite of the tax code has its own set of challenges. Ryan is pushing for a 20 percent across-the-board tax hike on imports to pay for comprehensive tax reform. But that plan, known as border adjustment, has run into fierce resistance from GOP senators and other conservative critics.

Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey GrahamSenate panel questions Lynch on alleged FBI interference The Hill's Whip List: Senate ObamaCare repeal bill Judiciary Committee to continue Russia probe after Mueller meeting MORE (R-S.C.) poured cold water on Ryan’s plan, predicting that it wouldn’t even muster 10 GOP votes in the upper chamber.

Phillips said the Koch brothers have often hosted Ryan at their annual donor retreat but think his border-adjustment proposal amounts to a tax that will be passed on to consumers.

“We disagree with the Speaker. It’s a significant disagreement. It’s not consistent with the protection of consumers,” Phillips said. “We have a good relationship. We agree with him on so many issues, but this is a significant disagreement on policy.

“It’s a direct tax, and we want to get this changed.”

Ben Kamisar and Peter Sullivan contributed.