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Freedom Caucus Resists Ryan

house freedom caucus
Huelskamp talks with reporters Wednesday after a meeting of the House Republican Conference. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Updated 7:34 p.m. | Paul D. Ryan had a choice. Now he’s given his colleagues one.

The Wisconsin Republican put the question of his speaker candidacy to his fellow lawmakers Tuesday, asking for the endorsement of three major House GOP caucuses by Friday. Now those groups are trying to figure out what it would take to get behind him.

The Republican Study Committee met with Ryan Wednesday, and while RSC Chairman Bill Flores said there was unlikely to be an announcement before Thursday, Ryan probably won’t have trouble getting the backing of the large conservative group. Nor is the Ways and Means chairman expected to have trouble winning the support of the moderate Tuesday Group, which he Ryan is set to meet with Thursday.

But securing the endorsement of the House Freedom Caucus could prove elusive.

“We just had a conversation about an exchange of ideas about how to make the Congress work better, and I thought it was very constructive,” Ryan said Wednesday after meeting with the HFC.

Asked whether he secured their commitments or endorsement, Ryan said, “no, it wasn’t that kind of meeting.”

According to a member in the meeting, Ryan discussed votes on an Obamacare replacement and welfare overhaul, and said he wouldn’t bring up an immigration overhaul without support from a majority of the majority. Specifics about procedural changes and any changes to the motion to vacate the chair were not discussed.

The member said a majority of the HFC probably still back Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla.

Coming out of a separate early evening HFC meeting, Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., said Ryan made a good presentation today, “But I think there’s still some people who have more questions to be answered.”

Some HFC members suggested the caucus could find a way to endorse him. While it takes a four-fifths majority to take an official position, HFC member Dave Brat, R-Va., said that rule was potentially “in play,” depending on the conversations they had with Ryan and the other procedural concessions he could make.

Still, other HFC members suggested playing with the endorsement rules would be antithetical to what the Freedom Caucus stands for.

“The rules are the rules,” HFC Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, told CQ Roll Call.

Among the HFC’s concerns, one of the most glaring issues seems to be Ryan’s condition that the conference agrees to changing the motion to vacate the chair — to “de-weaponize it,” as a Ryan spokesman put it.

Freedom Caucus members, some of whom used the threat of a vote on a motion to vacate the chair as a way to expedite Speaker John A. Boehner’s departure, have a big problem with that stipulation. It’s exactly the sort of cudgel they can lord over a speaker if a leader goes back on his or her word. And, thinking more broadly about the House as an institution — which HFC members frequently do — it’s also a tool to depose a speaker suddenly unfit for the job.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine said Wednesday Ryan’s proposed changes were a “bit of a stretch” for him. Asked if he thought Ryan could get a four-fifths majority of the HFC while pushing for that change, the Oklahoma Republican said, “I don’t think that’s possible.”

Following Ryan’s announcement Tuesday evening, HFC founding member Raúl R. Labrador of Idaho called changing the motion to vacate “a non-starter.” Another Freedom Caucus member, Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, pointed out the procedure has existed in Jefferson’s Manual — the first American book on parliamentary rules — for more than 200 years.

“I thought if it was good enough for Thomas Jefferson, it was probably good enough for the U.S. House today,” Huelskamp said.

Ryan is now in the difficult position of working out a way to blunt the knife of a motion to vacate without going so far in his changes that conservatives accuse him of an unprecedented power grab — as some already have. According to members present, Ryan told the RSC Wednesday that the specific change he is looking at is raising the threshold from a simple majority. That may be a tall ask.

Part of Ryan’s calculation with the speakership is that he’s never really wanted the job. His consistent refusals to take it prove that point. Even now, as he seeks the gavel, Ryan’s requests make it clear he’s perfectly content leading the Ways and Means Committee. Most members seem to think Ryan was sincere in laying out what it would take for him to accept the job.

But what he wants might be too much for the Freedom Caucus. Ryan might have always known that, and he could have constructed conditions that those members just couldn’t live with. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., told reporters he thought Ryan’s demands indicated that he doesn’t actually want the job.

Of course, if the Freedom Caucus blocks the nine-term member, Ryan may be able to damage the HFC’s unlikely grip over the conference. But maybe not.

Reid Ribble, a fellow Wisconsinite and one of two members who recently quit the HFC, said there were two potential reactions if the caucus blocked Ryan: “They either gain more power because outside groups really embrace it, or they marginalize themselves here to where they can’t do anything.”

Ribble said he wasn’t sure which way it would go. If Ryan didn’t run because the HFC refused to endorse him, Ribble thought it “certainly” would damage the caucus he once belonged to.

“But I don’t know that it would necessarily marginalize them outside, particularly in the congressional districts that they represent,” Ribble said, “because the bulk of them come from staunchly red districts.”

Perhaps much of the tension between the HFC and the rest of the conference can be explained in a similar way. The gerrymandered slices of America that many Freedom Caucus members represent are not the same slices that most other Republicans represent, where the 2012 vice presidential nominee is revered among GOP voters as a wonky conservative.

When Labrador was asked Wednesday if there would be any blowback for the Freedom Caucus for blocking Ryan, he came back to a frequent HFC talking point: This speaker election is about process, not a person.

“I don’t think there’s any political risk if we actually make a strong argument for why we are or not supporting him,” Labrador said. “I think this is not about an individual. This is not about the who; this is about the what.”

Emma Dumain contributed to this report.


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