Dems put squeeze on Ryan over chaplain controversy

Dems put squeeze on Ryan over chaplain controversy
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Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Sanders set to shake up 2020 race McCabe: No one in 'Gang of Eight' objected to FBI probe into Trump Unscripted Trump keeps audience guessing in Rose Garden MORE’s flip-flop decision to retain the House chaplain has won only partial praise from Democrats, who want to keep the focus on Patrick Conroy’s initial forced resignation — and create new headaches for the Wisconsin Republican in the process. 

Ryan faced heavy scrutiny from lawmakers in both parties after it came to light that he forced the chaplain to resign without citing clear reasons. With pressure building, Ryan granted Conroy’s request Thursday to rescind his resignation, keeping the chaplain on board through at least the remainder of the year. 

But Democrats, smelling blood, aren’t letting go of the episode. They’re vowing to press Ryan to explain his initial — and historically unprecedented — move to oust the Jesuit priest, hoping to protract a controversy that’s highlighted deep divisions within the GOP and cast the Speaker in an unflattering light heading into November’s midterms.   

“Many distressing questions must still be answered about the motivations behind Father Conroy’s unwarranted and unjust dismissal,” said House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiWhy Omar’s views are dangerous Pelosi asks members to support resolution against emergency declaration Overnight Defense: Graham clashed with Pentagon chief over Syria | Talk grows that Trump will fire Coats | Coast Guard officer accused of domestic terrorism plot MORE (D-Calif.).

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It’s unclear how successful Democrats will be in keeping the episode in the spotlight. 

A Democratic effort to create a special panel to examine the reasons behind Conroy’s initial ouster failed last week on the House floor, largely along partisan lines. And a senior Democratic aide acknowledged that, by restoring Conroy to the post, Ryan has largely defused the controversy. 

Still, Democrats will “no doubt” be discussing next steps when Congress returns to Washington Monday after a weeklong recess, the aide said, with designs to feed a broader critical narrative — long championed by Democrats — that Republicans are simply incompetent when it comes to the basic responsibilities of governing.

“I don’t know how politically potent it is. It just shows that they’re a mess,” the aide said. “They can’t even do housekeeping correctly.”  

“Because there are conflicting reports and questions left unanswered, we need a full understanding of what happened,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), the Catholic chairman of the House Democratic Caucus who spearheaded the resolution seeking an examination into Conroy’s initial dismissal.

The Democrats got an outside assist on Friday when the Catholic League, a civil rights group, urged Ryan to fire his chief of staff, Jonathan Burks, who had asked for Conroy’s resignation last month on behalf of the Speaker.

By Conroy’s telling, Burks’s reasoning hinged, in part, on an appetite within the GOP conference for a non-Catholic chaplain. 

“I inquired as to whether or not it was ‘for cause,’ and Mr. Burks mentioned dismissively something like ‘maybe it’s time that we had a Chaplain that wasn’t Catholic,’ ” Conroy wrote in a May 3 letter to Ryan, in which the chaplain retracted his earlier resignation.

Burks adamantly denies Conroy’s depiction of the discussion.

"I strongly disagree with Father Conroy’s recollection of our conversation,” Burks said in a brief statement. “I am disappointed by the misunderstanding, but wish him the best as he continues to serve the House.” 

That explanation fell flat with Catholic League President Bill Donohue, who said Burks “blew it” when he approached Conroy to step down.

“It’s time Ryan found himself a new chief of staff,” Donohue said Friday in a statement. “Anti-Catholic bigotry cannot be tolerated anywhere, and certainly not in Washington.” 

Ryan, a staunch Catholic, has said he sought to remove Conroy after hearing complaints from members that the chaplain was a frequently detached figure who neglected their spiritual needs. And a Ryan spokeswoman fervently rejected the idea that the move was rooted in religious prejudice.

“To suggest there is any anti-Catholic bias in the speaker’s office is not only wrong but absurd,” AshLee Strong said Friday in an email. 

Still, no Republicans have voiced complaints against Conroy publicly, and a number of lawmakers in both parties have said the Speaker’s explanations have so far been insufficient. 

“I never heard even a hint, a word of criticism,” Rep. Pete KingPeter (Pete) Thomas KingThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Sanders set to shake up 2020 race House Dems release 2020 GOP 'retirements to watch' for GOP lawmaker: Amazon would be moving into NY if Ocasio-Cortez wasn't elected MORE (N.Y.), a Catholic Republican, said before Conroy was reinstated.

“We still have many questions on why this injustice happened in the first place,” said Rep. Marcy KapturMarcia (Marcy) Carolyn KapturOvernight Energy: Wheeler weathers climate criticism at confirmation hearing | Dems want Interior to stop drilling work during shutdown | 2018 was hottest year for oceans House Dems call on leadership to prioritize opioid epidemic Lawmakers shrug off shutdown drama MORE (D-Ohio).

Conroy, appointed in 2011 by former Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerCrowley, Shuster moving to K Street On unilateral executive action, Mitch McConnell was right — in 2014 Bill Clinton jokes no one would skip Dingell's funeral: 'Only time' we could get the last word MORE (R-Ohio), has suggested he was ousted for more ideological reasons, after he used a House prayer in November to urge fairness as lawmakers crafted an overhaul of the tax code. That prayer, Conroy wrote to Ryan, was mentioned by Burks when he requested his resignation on April 13.

“At that point, I thought I had little choice but to resign,” Conroy wrote to Ryan Thursday.

The dizzying episode has highlighted a gradual shift within the House GOP conference, with Republican Catholics in the north dwindling in numbers and the party’s power base increasingly consolidated among conservative evangelicals in the South and the West. 

Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerPartnerships paving the way to sustain and support Historically Black Colleges and Universities Lawmaker seeks to ban ex-members from lobbying until sexual harassment settlements repaid Florida governor suspends Palm Beach County elections supervisor MORE (R-N.C.) fueled that divide when he suggested Conroy’s replacement should have a family, which would preclude consideration of celibate Catholics. The remarks sparked a firestorm of criticism from Democrats accusing Ryan of “cover[ing] for the whims of extremists in his caucus,” in the words of Rep. Bill PascrellWilliam (Bill) James PascrellDems seize on Times bombshell to push allegations of Trump obstruction Cuomo to meet with Trump over SALT deduction cap Dems build case for obtaining Trump's tax returns MORE (D-N.J.). 

Ryan, for his part, had initially been silent about the forced nature of Conroy’s resignation. While he’d warned Pelosi of the move, “there was the thought that Ryan wouldn’t go through with it after he announced his retirement,” said a source familiar with Pelosi’s thinking. Ryan announced his retirement on April 11, just two days before Burks visited Conroy to ask him to step down.

Several days later, Conroy’s resignation letter was read on the House floor under a fast-track unanimous consent (U.C.) process normally reserved for noncontroversial measures. Absent any objection, such measures are adopted without a single vote cast. Most lawmakers were not on the floor at the time, and were unaware that Conroy’s resignation was involuntary. And Democratic leaders said they were not given the accustomed notification that the measure would be considered.

“Most U.C.s are pre-cleared,” said the source familiar with the episode. “That one was not pre-cleared.”  

In reinstating Conroy Friday, Ryan said his initial move seeking resignation “was based on my duty to ensure that the House has the kind of pastoral services that it deserves.”

“It is my job as speaker to do what is best for this body, and I know that this body is not well served by a protracted fight over such an important post,” he said.

Ryan said he plans to meet with Conroy early next week.