BY SCOTT WONG
Speaker Paul Ryan is frequently asked if he’s managed to tame the raucous House Freedom Caucus. His consistent response: Nobody can be tamed.
Despite those protestations, Ryan has spent his first couple months as Speaker aggressively courting some of the same Freedom Caucus conservatives who forced his predecessor, John Boehner, out of office last fall.
The Wisconsin Republican ensured that conservative rebel Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas), ostracized for years by Boehner and his allies, won a subcommittee gavel and a coveted spot on the powerful Speaker-aligned panel that picks committee chairmen.
He’s invited Freedom members to weekly dinners he hosts in the Capitol. And Ryan has made Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a frequent thorn in Boehner’s side, a key member of his advisory team.
So far, founders of the nearly 40-member Freedom Caucus have praised Ryan’s more inclusive leadership style and are willing to give him some breathing room to show what he can do in his new role. But Ryan knows he’s walking a perilous tightrope: A major misstep this year and the Freedom Caucus could send him packing, just like they did to Boehner.
Freedom Caucus members themselves are also feeling heat from grassroots conservatives and some talk-radio hosts, who want them to dump Ryan. Some lawmakers are still receiving phone calls from constituents angry that they helped give Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012, enough votes to win the speaker’s gavel last October, aides said.
Fortunately for Ryan, there aren’t many political landmines in 2016. The budget deal Boehner struck with Obama in October during his final days in office cleared the decks for Ryan, setting government spending levels for the next two years and ensuring there would be no debt default until at least March 2017, after a new president is sworn in.
Freedom Caucus leaders are also aware that Ryan is enormously popular on Capitol Hill right now, both among rank-and-file members and the press. His media shop has been sending out glowing profiles of the 45-year-old Speaker on almost a daily basis. GOP strategists said the newly empowered Freedom group, which ousted Boehner just nine months after it was founded, would “lose credibility” and appear petty if it moved too quickly against Ryan, who appears to be bending over backwards to accommodate conservative rebels.
At this month’s joint House-Senate Republican retreat in Baltimore, Freedom members said they’re pushing for a vote this year on a long-awaited plan to replace ObamaCare. They also want use the GOP’s fiscal 2017 budget blueprint to cut billions from top-line spending levels that were part of the Boehner-Obama budget deal.
But conservatives demurred when asked if they would target Ryan if he doesn’t accede to their wishes.
“The words that are said need to be met with action, so let’s see what happens over the next year and we’ll be in a better position to assess how we’re doing as a conference,” Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), a Freedom Caucus co-founder, said just as the three-day GOP pow-wow in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor was wrapping up.
“I think you need to give it time.”
Ryan may have bought himself time by immediately reaching out to some of Boehner’s fiercest foes in the GOP conference right from the start.
After crossing Boehner, Huelskamp in 2012 was booted from both the Budget and Agriculture committees — a huge blow for a congressman whose state economy relies on farming. The relationship got so toxic that Boehner didn’t even bother calling Huelskamp when he visited his district last year, according to Huelskamp.
One of Ryan’s first orders of business upon moving into the Speaker’s office was backing a conservative push to overhaul the powerful GOP Steering Committee, the Speaker-led panel that decides which lawmakers get committee gavels and committee assignments.
In the shake-up, several influential committee chairman lost their spots on the Steering panel; Huelskamp, the current chairman of the Tea Party Caucus, was elected to one of the vacancies. Then this month, Small Business Committee Chairman Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) made another surprise announcement: He was naming Huelskamp the new chairman of the subcommittee on economic growth, tax and capital access.
A fifth-generation farmer, Huelskamp said he’s now seeking to win back his seat on the Agriculture Committee.
“We’ve seen what happens when you change out a Speaker who was dedicated to retribution and attacking conservatives rather than Obama,” Huelskamp said in a phone interview from Kansas on Monday. “We’re now hoping it translates into some policy changes in the House.”
The courtship has also been taking place behind the scenes. Ryan has hosted Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) and other conservative hard-liners at some of his weekly dinners in the Capitol. Each time, Ryan typically invites a cross-section of the 246-member GOP conference, from hard-core conservatives and centrists to chairmen and rank-and-file members. The Speaker’s goal is simple: force members to talk to each other.
The Ryan dinners are a contrast from Boehner, who would frequently dine with close-knit group of buddies at Trattoria Alberto on Barracks Row.
Ryan’s “having small dinners with everyone, not just conservatives,” said Meadows, who authored a resolution last summer to oust Boehner from the Speaker’s office. “The dinner I went to allowed me to have a great conversation with colleagues who aren’t part of my normal social circle.”
Jordan had served in the Ohio delegation with Boehner, but the former Republican Study Committee (RSC) chairman and the Speaker often viewed each other as political rivals. Once Boehner was out, Ryan swiftly brought Jordan into his inner circle. The new Speaker named Jordan and another key Freedom Caucus leader, Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), to his advisory group, an informal kitchen cabinet that meets weekly. The group also includes close Ryan confidants and leaders of the conservative RSC and centrist Tuesday Group.
Allies argue that the Speaker’s outreach efforts aren’t aimed solely at conservatives — they’re targeting all factions within the enormous GOP conference. With Donald Trump and other GOP presidential hopefuls at each other’s throats, Ryan is working to unite his usually fractious caucus behind what he’s described as a positive, pro-growth election-year agenda.
“We will follow a lot of what happens on the presidential side, but we need to lay out a distinct vision for the country, so I’m with Paul on that effort,” said Rep. Sean Duffy, a fellow Wisconsin Republican and close Ryan ally.
Another way Ryan is getting his members on the same page: giving them more time and opportunities to weigh in on what exactly that 2016 agenda should look like. He’s added a second GOP conference meeting each week on Thursdays that focused on debating policy ideas. And the open-microphone session at the Baltimore retreat was more freewheeling than it has been in the past, lawmakers said.
“I didn’t feel like I was vilified as much for speaking the truth,” Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, a GOP gadfly who is not part of the Freedom Caucus, told reporters. Both he and Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) unsuccessfully challenged Boehner for Speaker a year ago.
“We ought to be a party where people can stand up and exchange ideas freely and not be worried about losing a chairmanship or a committee because we expressed a different view than the leadership,” Gohmert continued. “Because it’s only when you have the free flow of ideas that you have the party that will appeal to the masses of Americans.”