Ryan and Pelosi’s challenge: Each other

Paul Ryan and Nancy Pelosi have some catching up to do.

The Speaker-in-waiting and House Democratic leader have been prominent voices in their respective parties for many years, but they have not, by all accounts, worked closely together — legislatively or otherwise.

{mosads}Ryan’s (R-Wis.) expected ascension to Speaker this week will change those dynamics drastically, delivering a fresh face to the GOP and new hopes for unity in a divided Republican Conference.

The changing of the guard will also present Pelosi (D-Calif.) with a new negotiating partner — one whose budgets she’s long condemned as an assault on society’s most vulnerable.

Ryan, a former Budget Committee chairman who now leads the House tax-writing panel, has won plaudits in the GOP for his policy smarts and devotion to fiscal conservatism — an esteem that made him the GOP’s vice presidential candidate in 2012 and is soon to propel him to the Speaker’s chair, albeit reluctantly.

Pelosi and the Democrats have used Ryan’s budget plans, which featured steep cuts in domestic programs such as Medicare, as a campaign bludgeon to highlight what they consider the wrong-headed priorities of the Republican Party. Those criticisms are likely to intensify as Ryan takes the gavel.

“We have a … person who knows the territory, knows the issues, so that’s helpful,” Pelosi said Thursday. “But also a clear distinction as to what our statement of values in a budget would be, versus what … has been in the Ryan budget.”

“It’ll be interesting to work with him,” she added, hinting at an uncertainty in what to expect as Ryan shifts from committee wonk to power broker.

Economic vision is hardly the only difference between Pelosi and Ryan.

Pelosi, 75, is a grandmother nine times over; Ryan is 45 with three young children. Pelosi, an urbanite raised in Baltimore, represents the liberal stronghold of San Francisco; Ryan hails from Janesville, Wis. (population 64,000), where he still lives. Pelosi hits the road with a vengeance, raising tens of millions of dollars on behalf of Democrats; Ryan made it a condition of his Speakership bid that he intends to spend his weekends at home with his family.

Still, there are similarities between them. Both are seasoned lawmakers — Pelosi in her 15th term, Ryan in his ninth — with a strong grasp of policy and sixth sense for politics. Both are Catholic.

Ryan is expected to replace Speaker John Boehner, who is resigning this week after nearly 25 years in Congress, pushed out by conservatives who felt he left them powerless to confront President Obama and the Democrats on major policy issues. 

Boehner and Pelosi had little working relationship before the Ohio Republican’s rise in the GOP ranks. But as chairman of House Education and Labor Committee, he’d worked closely with former Rep. George Miller (Calif.), the top Democrat on the panel and perhaps Pelosi’s most trusted confidant on Capitol Hill before his retirement last year. And the pair clicked on a personal level, even as they frequently lambasted the policy prescriptions the other was proposing. 

Though ardently conservative, Boehner was also seen as an able negotiator who would accept compromise to keep the government running and preserve the institution of Congress.

Most Democrats have conflicting perceptions of Ryan. On one hand, they see him as a staunch conservative whose budgets would have gutted social services to reward the wealthy with tax cuts. But they also view him as a willing negotiator who joined forces with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to get a budget deal that prevented a government default in 2013. They’re waiting anxiously to see which Ryan assumes the Speaker’s chair.

“I’m hoping that he will … have his eye on responsibility as, in my view, Speaker Boehner always did have,” Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip, said Friday. “But his budgets do not give me a great deal of confidence that that will be the case. I hope he follows policy, not politics.”

Dogging Ryan in the Speaker’s position will be the same conservatives who toppled Boehner — a dynamic that’s led Ryan, as a condition of his ascension, to push for a rule change making it tougher to oust a sitting Speaker. It’s a dynamic that hasn’t been lost on Democratic leaders.

“It all depends upon whether or not he will be able to rise above some of the partisan rancor that’s in his conference,” said Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat. “I don’t know if they’re going to let him do that. If they let him do that, it’ll be fine. But if they don’t, the results will be the same.”

Well aware of the conservatives’ tactics, Boehner is scrambling this week to win a sweeping budget agreement with the White House.

Boehner has said he wants to “clean the barn” before he steps down, and securing a budget deal before Ryan takes the gavel would protect the Wisconsin Republican from the conservative pressures he’d surely face if he was in charge of the negotiations.

Removing the immediate threat of a federal default and a government shutdown would free Ryan to take up other issues — notably the tax reforms that have been at the top of his legislative wish list on the Ways and Means Committee. 

Some Democrats are hoping he’ll also delve into some of the social issues the House has avoided under Boehner. Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), head of the Congressional Black Caucus, singled out immigration reform and the renewal of the Voting Rights Act as two issues he thinks Ryan is open to.

“He has the intellectual capacity to articulate it and explain it to the base within the Republican Conference,” Butterfield said. “The question is, ‘Will he do it?’ And I think he will.”

Tags Nancy Pelosi Paul Ryan

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