Black Caucus wants to work with Ryan

Greg Nash

Leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) are hopeful that Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) will be a powerful ally in the fight against poverty.

Although Ryan angered Democrats for years with budget proposals that would slash government programs, the CBC leaders also see him as an open-minded and pragmatic legislator who will work across the aisle in ways that his predecessor, former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), did not.

{mosads}CBC Chairman G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) grabbed Ryan Thursday on the House floor as the soon-to-be Speaker was working his way through a sea of hugs to accept the gavel. His message was simple: We want to work with you.

“He calls me G.K. and I call him P.D., and I told him that the Congressional Black Caucus looks forward to working with him. And he acknowledged it — said he looked forward to working [together],” Butterfield said afterwards. “And I believe him.”

Ryan’s speech to the House chamber Thursday has fueled that optimism. Lamenting a “broken” institution, he urged the factious body to unite for the sake of helping constituents in all districts.

“How reassuring it would be if we actually fixed the tax code, put patients in charge of their healthcare, grew our economy, strengthened our military, lifted people out of poverty and paid down the debt,” Ryan said. “Nothing could stir the heart more than real, concrete results.”

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who has focused intently on anti-poverty measures and has worked alongside Ryan on the House Budget Committee, said she was particularly encouraged by the Speaker’s call to help low-income people.

“Clearly, we have different points of view with regard to the pathways out of poverty,” Lee said. “But I’m pleased that he mentioned it, and I look forward to working with him on finding solutions.”

There is a history between Ryan and the CBC, both hot and cold. Ryan riled the caucus last year when he told a conservative radio host that poverty is caused largely by a “tailspin of culture,” particularly in inner cities, where “generations of men [are] not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work.”

Democrats denounced the comments as an attack on black culture — an outcry that led Ryan to clarify his “inarticulate” remarks and then meet with the CBC behind closed doors to discuss an anti-poverty strategy.

The two sides emerged from that meeting in broad disagreement about the best approach for helping the poor escape poverty. But Ryan expressed an interest in one CBC proposal — dubbed the 10-20-30 plan — that would direct at least 10 percent of federal anti-poverty spending to communities where at least 20 percent of the population has lived below the poverty line for at least the last 30 years.

“We’re going to sit down and talk more about [it],” Ryan said at the time.

Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), the third-ranking House Democrat and leading proponent of the 10-20-30 plan, said he’s hoping Ryan’s ascension to Speaker will lend a boost to the proposal. He said the Democrats see Ryan as an honest broker willing to transcend politics in the name of getting results.

“We don’t hang out together, but we have a pleasant relationship,” Clyburn said. “He has expressed interest in the concept, and we’ve got to make it work.”

Finding common ground won’t be easy. Ryan, as former Budget Committee chairman, proposed a series of annual budgets that Democrats assailed as helping the wealthy at the expense of the lower and working classes.

Ryan’s last blueprint — proposed in 2014, before he took over the Ways and Means panel — was designed to eliminate deficit spending over a decade through a series of tax reforms and $5.1 trillion in spending cuts, including sharp reductions in Medicare and Medicaid.

The outline was largely silent about precisely which discretionary programs would be hit, but bringing the budget into balance over such a short window would necessarily mean steep cuts to many programs aimed at helping the poor, including food stamps and Pell Grants.

An analysis by the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said Ryan’s budget would have cut $3.3 trillion from programs that serve low- and moderate-income people, representing 69 percent of all discretionary savings under the plan.

Aside from the policy disagreements, Democrats also accused Ryan of using dishonest math to cover the costs of his plan — a charge that persists as he takes the Speaker’s chair.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said Ryan is well respected by the Democrats for his civility to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — “Not a trivial thing in the current climate,” he said — but the budget debates have left a bad taste in the mouths of many Democrats.

“He has a reputation for being wonkish and intellectual, and maybe he is, but his budgets showed that that only went so far,” Connolly said. “They were not intellectually honest documents.”

Complicating the chances for bipartisanship, Ryan will be dealing with the same conservatives who drove Boehner to resign, partly on the basis that he was too quick to cede power to President Obama and the Democrats.

Facing a Dec. 11 deadline to fund the government, the Democrats are eager to see how the new Speaker can manage his right flank while negotiating a spending bill that can win Obama’s support.

Ryan’s effectiveness, Clyburn said, “depends upon whether or not he will be able to rise above some of the partisan rancor that’s in his conference. 

“I don’t know if they’re going to let him do that,” he added. “If they let him do that, it’ll be fine. But if they don’t, the results will be the same.”

Still, CBC leaders think Ryan’s policy chops and political dexterity could smooth the bumps that bedeviled such negotiations under Boehner.

“He’s a very personable man, and he’s highly intelligent, and he can articulate the challenges and he can get in the weeds with us on public policy,” Butterfield said. “I didn’t see that in Boehner.”

Tags Boehner G.K. Butterfield Gerry Connolly John Boehner Paul Ryan

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