The quest for tax reform is Ryan’s moment of truth

Camille Fine

This is Paul Ryan’s moment of truth.

The 47-year-old Speaker of the House has been preparing for it ever since the Wisconsin Republican won his first election to Congress nearly two decades ago.

{mosads}Tax reform has been Ryan’s true passion and life’s work on Capitol Hill. The former Ways and Means Committee chairman has given countless speeches on the subject and spent the past year pitching the GOP’s tax framework to manufacturers around the country. 

And tax reform — if it passes or fails — could be the last landmark piece of legislation Ryan works on in Congress, several of his GOP colleagues said.

Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee on Thursday will unveil their long-awaited bill to overhaul the U.S. tax code. It marks a huge step toward Ryan’s ambitious goal of passing complicated tax legislation out of the House by Thanksgiving and putting it on President Trump’s desk by Christmas.

Most House Republicans are bullish they can cobble together the 218 votes they need, even if major sticking points on the state and local tax deduction and 401(k) retirement plans still remain.

But if Ryan whiffs big, some of his GOP colleagues said they can see the Speaker resigning in the middle of his term or announcing his retirement, mostly out of frustration that Republicans — in full control of Washington — went 0-for-2 on ObamaCare repeal and tax reform.

“I would think he would quit on his own” if Ryan can’t deliver on tax reform, said one GOP lawmaker who serves on the conservative Republican Study Committee.

“Tax reform is his bread and butter,” added a senior House GOP aide. “He gets emotional about this. He’d have his heart broken if tax reform failed.”

The 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee envisioned passing tax reform years ago with Mitt Romney. But the Romney-Ryan ticket fell short, and this could be Ryan’s last chance to revamp the tax code.

As he has pointed out in interviews since the failure of replacing ObamaCare, the House passed a health-care bill and more than 300 other measures that haven’t cleared the upper chamber. But the House ObamaCare effort was a struggle, and it narrowly passed in May after being declared dead in March.

To get to President Trump’s desk, the House needs to give the Senate a tax-cut bill that has momentum. That isn’t going to be easy as most — if not all — House Democrats are expected to vote “no.” Ryan must foster GOP unity, which has been elusive in 2017.

Should Ryan decide to leave Congress in the next year or two, it would hardly be a shocking scenario. Ryan, whose wife and three school-aged children live back home in Janesville, Wis., frequently reminds people he had to practically be dragged into the Speakership; it was not something he ever wanted or sought out.

He’s been telling close friends he’s losing patience with the job, Politico reported.

And these days, Speakers don’t last very long. On Sunday, Ryan marked the second anniversary since he took over the Speaker’s office from John Boehner, the Ohio Republican who was pushed out by the band of ultraconservative rebels in the House Freedom Caucus.

Lawmakers interviewed for this story all agreed Ryan would not face a similar coup attempt by conservatives if he comes up short on tax reform.

Nothing will happen to Ryan “unless he wants to quit, which most sane people would,” quipped a second GOP lawmaker.

But Ryan’s top lieutenants and other ambitious members of the 239-person GOP conference have been raising their national profile in recent weeks, moves which could help them climb the leadership ladder in the event Ryan decides to call it quits early.

Both Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who dropped his bid for the Speakership two years ago, and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), who almost died after a mass shooting in June, have been making the rounds on cable TV and giving interviews to other news outlets.

GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) launched a nationwide “Faces of Tax Reform” tour, where she’s pitching the tax bill alongside fellow Republican colleagues whose support she would need for a future leadership run.

And Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), the Baptist pastor and chairman of the Republican Study Committee, has been elevating his profile in recent weeks.

“The people surrounding Ryan in leadership are teeing things up if things go south,” said one top GOP communicator on Capitol Hill who has observed the jockeying. “From a staff level, people in leadership are seeing concern as well as opportunity. They are preparing a fail-safe if Ryan is out.”

If Republicans manage to pull off a legislative miracle and enact tax reform by Christmas Day, some GOP lawmakers speculated Ryan could decide to go out on top.

“Maybe Paul slides out of the job if it passes, too. That may actually be more likely than leaving on failure,” said a GOP lawmaker close to Ryan.

“There is certainly a school of thought that says ‘leave on a high note.’ And passage of tax reform would be a high note for a guy that’s spent 18 years in Congress working on it.”

Ryan has previously indicated he won’t be a lifer on Capitol Hill.

In a 2014 interview with National Journal, Ryan said, “I’m not going to be in Congress 10 years from now.

“I can be definitive about that. No. God, no. I’ve already been there 16 years. I don’t want to be a career guy. Even though I’ve been there a long time, where you could already say that … it’s just, I don’t want to spend my adult life in Congress.”

Just as many of his GOP colleagues begged him to be Speaker in 2015, many of them will be begging him to stay, regardless of whether tax reform succeeds or fails.

To his credit, Ryan has managed to shield House Republicans from attacks from Trump as he’s railed against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and forced a pair of GOP critics — Sens. Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.) — into early retirements.

In an email after this article was published, Corker chief of staff Todd Womack disputed that characterization, saying Trump called Corker on Oct. 2 and “asked him to reconsider his decision not to seek re-election and reaffirmed that he would have endorsed him.”


Once a target of Trump’s ridicule, Ryan, a consummate D.C. insider, has worked hard to develop a relationship and rapport with the unpredictable president and political outsider. And the Speaker earned a bit of Trump’s trust by pushing an ObamaCare repeal bill through the House, a historic feat that wasn’t replicated by McConnell and the Senate.

“They need someone who can provide protection in Trump World,” said the senior House GOP aide. “Trump is not coming after House people, and I think members appreciate that. We’re not getting the ‘Flake treatment’ in the House.

“I don’t know who else can do that. If I’m a rank-and-file House member, I don’t want to relitigate where Ryan and Trump are right now.”

As he walked into a closed-door Ways and Means Committee meeting on the tax bill, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) argued that passing tax reform shouldn’t even be discussed in the context of Ryan’s future.    

Nunes, who is close to leadership due to his post as Intelligence Committee chairman, suggested the record-high U.S. stock market could tank if Republicans fail to deliver on their tax-reform promise. Allies and investors from around the world are closely monitoring the GOP’s effort.

“The markets are way up based on us getting this done,” Nunes told The Hill. “So everyone is counting on the Speaker and the president to deliver this vote and get this done.

“Everybody is counting on us. Not just here but around the globe.”

This article was updated at 2:45 p.m. to add the statement from Sen. Corker’s office. 

Tags Bob Corker Boehner Cathy McMorris Rodgers Jeff Flake John Boehner Mitch McConnell Paul Ryan

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