“I find it a little sad that you feel like this is even a story,” Rep. Paul D. Ryan said recently, mid-conversation with CQ Roll Call. “Because it shouldn’t have to be.”
The Wisconsin Republican had just been asked about the sometimes surprising political alliances he’s forged, both inside his own party and across the aisle.
Ryan, who at 45 still radiates the boy-next-door quality that helped land him on the 2012 national GOP ticket alongside Mitt Romney, credits his Midwestern roots for his genial approach to coalition-building — whether it’s working with Democrats on a budget or enlisting a tea party warrior such as Sen. Ted Cruz to talk up a trade deal. “Not treating people as if they’re enemies; it’s just good form,” he said with a shrug. “I’m from Wisconsin, that’s just sort of how we treat people. … I come from Janesville, Wis., a Democratic town in a purple state where constituents are all over the map.”
Of course, it takes more than an easy grin to win friends and influence people in Washington.
Ryan, for years the top Republican on the House Budget panel and now chairman of Ways and Means, can make things happen — and lawmakers in both parties know it.
At the end of 2013, he and his then-counterpart, Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., brokered a bipartisan, bicameral budget agreement.
Recently, he persuaded Sens. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, respectively, to sign off on Trade Promotion Authority legislation that would give the White House leeway to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership treaty.
“He understands that bipartisanship is not about taking each other’s bad ideas,” Wyden told CQ Roll Call. “Bipartisanship is about taking each other’s good ideas.”
Ryan presided over a successful markup of the TPA bill last month, but it remains to be seen whether he can push the measure over the next hurdle: House passage.
Asked how he plans to sell the TPA bill, which has the backing of President Barack Obama and a coalition of pro-trade Republicans and Democrats, to more skeptical colleagues, Ryan said he’s chatting with members one on one.
He said the merits of the bill speak for themselves, but his personal challenge is “knocking down the urban legends” that would interfere with lawmakers being able to support it.
Ryan recently took to the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal to make his case, co-authoring a pro-trade piece with Cruz. It seemed odd to some that Ryan, a close ally of Speaker John A. Boehner and a loyal GOP team player, would partner with the Texas senator and 2016 presidential contender who has been a frequent obstructionist of legislative proceedings and an occasional meddler into internal House GOP politics .
Not to Ryan.
“Ted’s a free trader,” he said. “I’ve known him a long time and I know he’s a Reagan conservative, which means he believes in pro-growth economics. I read somewhere they had some Iowa thing where he made positive comments about TPA … and knowing Ted, I just picked up the phone and called him.”
Ryan, a longtime Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker , wasn’t concerned that teaming up with Cruz on the eve of what is shaping up to be a crowded GOP presidential primary would raise any eyebrows.
“We want to speak to all elements of the party. We have a big tent party. And we should be for trade. So Ted and I are trying to communicate this to all different corners of our party and we thought [the op-ed] would kind of be helpful.”
By the same token, Cruz clearly didn’t mind being seen working with Ryan, who is safely ensconced in the more establishment wing of the party while retaining a reputation as one of the GOP’s fiercest budget hawks.
It’s a reputation that can make it harder for the Wisconsin Republican to connect across the aisle, Ryan said.
“People on the left think of me as this, whatever the caricature that has been described; so I’m used to it,” he said. “You gotta have thick skin.”
When he and Murray were thrown together in 2013 to negotiate a budget deal, Ryan said Murray probably had some preconceived notions.
“Once we got to know each other — it took us a while — but she realized I am who I am and not who people say I am,” he said. “Does that make sense?”
Ryan now considers Murray a friend, and the two are championing bills in their respective chambers that would create a commission to study how best to use data to make good public policy.
It’s not going to be easy for Ryan to make inroads with the GOP conference’s most hardline conservatives. Many of them don’t want to shore up the votes for TPA, arguing it would be tantamount to giving the president more power than he already has.
“I don’t think Chairman Ryan’s had much of an impact on conservatives so far,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., the chairman of the Tea Party Caucus who plans to vote in favor of the trade deal in deference to his agriculture-heavy district. “I was talking to somebody from out West, where 90 percent of the calls coming in are to say they’re against it. The only time there was more opposition to something was re-electing Boehner as speaker.”
“Paul’s a very persuasive and outstanding leader; the forces that are working against him here are really not of his own making,” added Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus who hasn’t yet committed on TPA.
Ryan has been stymied by outside forces before, most notably in the 113th Congress on immigration. Advocates for an immigration overhaul hoped Ryan’s support would make the idea more palatable for conservatives.
Asked why he was unable to shift public opinion on immigration, Ryan all but rolled his eyes and let out a weak laugh: “You want to get into immigration reform? People have written books about that!
“It’s a sign of the times,” Ryan sighed. “I could get into this, that or the other. There’s no point in pointing fingers. Just the sign of the times.”
He rejected the premise of a similar meltdown over trade.
“What do you think the signal will be to the rest of the world if America … what do you think the rest of the world would do, think or say if we fail?” he said. “Failure is not an option.”
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