Ryan's trial by fire begins

Ryan's trial by fire begins
© Greg Nash

During his first full week as Speaker, Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanWary GOP eyes Meadows shift from brick-thrower to dealmaker Budowsky: Why I back Kennedy, praise Markey Democratic super PAC quotes Reagan in anti-Trump ad set to air on Fox News: 'Are you better off?' MORE gave a glimpse of how he’ll run the House differently than his predecessor, John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerWary GOP eyes Meadows shift from brick-thrower to dealmaker Bottom line Cheney battle raises questions about House GOP's future MORE.

The 45-year-old Wisconsin Republican opened up the legislative process and allowed hours of freewheeling debate on more than 100 amendments to a long-term highway bill. Then he pushed the bill through the House on a huge bipartisan vote.

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Ryan vowed to give more opportunities for disgruntled rank-and-file members to be heard, holding the first weekly policy-focused conference meeting at the end of the week.

And the new Speaker launched a media blitz on national TV and radio, quieting critics who’ve complained that GOP leaders need to be more aggressive in communicating the party’s message.

So far, the reviews on Ryan have been good, most notably among the very conservatives who drove Boehner (R-Ohio) from the Speaker’s office.

Yet there’s also a realization that Ryan will face tougher and more complicated tests in the weeks to come. And conservatives are closely watching to see whether Ryan follows through on his pledge to create a more “bottom-up” power structure.

“It’s the first week of a honeymoon; there’s always smiles,” said Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), a dentist and Freedom Caucus conservative, one of nine who voted against Ryan for Speaker. “But trust is a series of promises kept.”

Ryan knows a government shutdown during his opening months as Speaker could be catastrophic for him and his party, with just over a year to go before voters head to the polls to pick a new president. But he’ll have to navigate a series of political landmines as he shepherds a bill through his chamber before funding runs out on Dec. 11.

Many on the right want to attach conservative language to the fiscal 2016 spending bill that would do things like defund Planned Parenthood, roll back environmental regulations or hamstring the Internal Revenue Service. Democrats dismiss those ideas as “poison pill” policy riders that would lead to a shutdown.

Ryan’s solution for now: Hold a series of meetings, led by Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and his panel, to gather ideas and input from rank-and-file members on how to shape the five still-unfinished spending bills. The Speaker wants to get buy-in on the front end, rather than present a bill to his unruly 246-member conference right before the deadline, as Boehner often did during spending fights.

And those won’t be the only changes. Like he did on Thursday morning, Ryan plans to preside over a weekly House GOP meeting at the end of each week to provide a forum to debate policy matters of the day. It would be in addition to the meeting Republicans hold at the beginning of each week to lay out the schedule.

To help unite the various factions of the GOP conference, Ryan also wants to huddle each week with the leaders of the Freedom Caucus, Republican Study Committee and the Tuesday Group of centrist lawmakers.

Still, there’s plenty of skepticism that more meetings will translate into success.

“There will be a lot more meetings, but to the extent that helps us pass legislation, that’s yet to be determined,” said one senior GOP aide.

Ryan will also need to keep the peace between Republicans who want a major overhaul of the influential Steering Committee and those want to preserve the status quo. The Speaker-led panel is responsible for handing out committee slots and committee gavels; the 33-member group awarded the coveted Ways and Means chairmanship to Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) just this week.

A handful of members of the Freedom Caucus, including Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), have teamed up with some moderates on a proposal that would boot six powerful committee chairmen and four lower-tier GOP leaders off the Speaker-led panel. Those members would be replaced by regional representatives in a bid to spread the power more evenly.

But that proposal is facing fierce pushback from the targeted leaders, as well as lawmakers who don’t think any changes should be made in the middle of the session. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), the GOP conference secretary, would lose her vote on the Steering Committee under the plan.

Instead of kicking off chairmen and leaders, she’s advocating adding people to the existing Steering panel. She argued that any Republican, even members of the Freedom Caucus, have the ability to run for her leadership post and win a seat at the Steering Committee table.

“What we need to do is expand it, not retract it,” Foxx said in an interview with The Hill. Removing members is “not a good suggestion — not for me personally but for the conference.”

Another panel member, Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), argued that if committee chairmen are ousted from the panel, they should at least get to weigh in on the decision to choose members of their own panels.

Ryan, who currently gets five votes on the Steering panel, appears open to changes that would shift the balance of power. He announced this week that he’d lead a small working group charged with coming up with a proposal that will be presented to the entire conference by Thanksgiving.

Those appointed to the working group are Foxx, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), GOP Policy Chairman Luke Messer (R-Ind.), Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), and Reps. Richard Hudson (R-N.C.), Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) and Rodney Davis (R-Ill.).

“My guess is there will be changes, and Paul has already said that,” Shimkus said.

During Ryan’s first policy meeting held Thursday, several GOP colleagues stood up during the “open mic” period and praised Ryan for conveying the party’s vision and message during a series of high-profile media interviews this week, sources in the meeting said.

In addition to appearing on all five Sunday shows, Ryan did interviews with Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren and conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt.

“That was one of our chief complaints with Boehner is he didn’t get out there much,” said Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), a perennial Boehner critic and Freedom Caucus member. Yoho recalled one exchange he had with Boehner in 2013, where he pressed the Speaker to talk more about a GOP alternative to ObamaCare.

“‘You’re the face of the Republican Party, you’ve got a bigger megaphone,’” Yoho said he told Boehner in a conference meeting. “He just wasn’t getting the message out. I think Paul is going to do an excellent job.”