The House Staring Contest: Pelosi and Ryan

Speaker hemmed in by Democrats on one side, conservative Republicans on the other

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi leaves the House chamber Wednesday after ending her eight-hour speech on the floor. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi leaves the House chamber Wednesday after ending her eight-hour speech on the floor. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted February 7, 2018 at 7:00pm

Speaker Paul D. Ryan is in a staring contest with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi over immigration that could result in a government shutdown.

But if the Wisconsin Republican blinks, he will likely push conservatives, many of them already at a boiling point with his leadership, over the edge.

“If he wants to remain speaker of the House, he needs to be very careful with that,” said Idaho Rep. Raúl R. Labrador, a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus, when asked whether he was worried Ryan may have to give something to the Democrats on immigration to get their votes on a spending deal. The hard-line conservative group has challenged leadership before and pushed hard against former Speaker John A. Boehner right up to his 2015 mid-session resignation.

From the other direction, Ryan must contend with a Democratic caucus fired up by Pelosi’s eight-hour speech on the House floor Wednesday to bring attention to the “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children, many of whom were protected from deportation by the expiring Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. 

Pelosi announced Wednesday she would withhold her support for a sweeping budget deal without a commitment from Ryan on an immigration vote to protect the Dreamers. Then she held the floor during her “leader time” and set a record for the longest continuous floor speech for a member of the House, besting  Champ Clark’s 1909 speech decrying tariff reforms. 

“Our basic request is honor the House of Representatives, give us a chance to have a vote on the floor,” she said to Democratic applause.

Watch: Pelosi Holds House Floor Seeking DACA Commitment From Ryan

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She said a floor process for immigration legislation should be “bipartisan” and “transparent,” adding there are multiple bills that would fit that criteria.

Speaking with reporters after the speech, Pelosi suggested she will not formally whip her members to vote against the budget deal she is opposing to secure the commitment.

“Members will do what they’ll do,” the California Democrat said.

The Trump administration decided to end DACA, effective March 5. The program was created with an executive order by former President Barack Obama that Republicans say was unconstitutional.

Shortly after she began the House equivalent of a filibuster Wednesday, Pelosi sent out a statement saying that without a commitment from Ryan similar to what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made on an immigration measure, a budget deal wouldn’t get her support. 

Around midday, as Pelosi was just getting started on the floor, Ryan briefed the House Republican Conference on the parameters of the budget deal that Senate leaders announced at the same time. The agreement would increase spending by a total of $296 billion above the sequestration spending caps for fiscal years 2018 and 2019, suspend the debt ceiling for a year, and include a $90 billion disaster aid supplemental, among a host of other policy items.

Senate passage seems assured, as McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer both announced their support for the deal in floor remarks Wednesday. But House passage remains an open question, with Democrats holding back support in hopes of an immigration commitment and enough conservatives coming out against it to prevent Republicans from passing it without the minority party’s assistance.

‘I’m a hell no’

Frustration with the amount of spending in the deal and lack of ways to pay for it was widespread among conservatives, with the strongest comments coming from the Freedom Caucus.

“I’m not only a ‘no,’ I’m a ‘hell no,’” Alabama GOP Rep. Mo Brooks said.

Immigration was not really discussed in the conference meeting, members said, noting Ryan just reiterated that he intends to keep the DACA debate separate from the spending bill. The speaker did not directly address Pelosi’s demand, and some House Republicans leaving the conference did not even know she was seeking concessions on immigration.

Most conservatives interviewed for this article didn’t want to speculate about Ryan giving Pelosi something on immigration to get her caucus’s support on the spending deal. But they were already frustrated that he agreed to a budget deal that would approve hundreds of billions of dollars in spending that was not offset.

“I never thought — or I guess I’m surprised that Paul Ryan with his focus in the past on fiscal discipline was going to go along with this kind of increase,” said Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a founding member and former chairman of the Freedom Caucus.

Jordan called the deal “terrible” but declined to say whether he thinks Ryan should remain speaker.

“I don’t want to get into that,” he said. “I just can’t believe Republicans are going to go along with … almost a quarter of a trillion dollar increase, second only in the last decade to the Obama stimulus package.”

‘Against the wall’

Other conservatives in the larger Republican Study Committee (some Freedom Caucus members like Jordan are in the group too) also had complaints but more appeared open to the deal.

“I know a lot of people are supportive because of the fact they don’t feel like leadership has another option, our backs are up against the wall, but the problem is our backs are up against the wall too many times,” RSC Chairman Mark Walker told Roll Call.

The North Carolina Republican said he was struggling to support the deal, especially without a procedural change that would prevent the Democratic minority from continuing to wield significant influence over the appropriations process. Specifically, he again floated the idea of the Senate ending the filibuster for spending bills, saying, “Because I don’t see how we get off this train until then.”

Supporting the spending deal would be easier if there were a path to exiting the train, Walker said.

“Sometimes, you’ll take a tough vote and you’ll say, ‘OK, tough vote short-term, but long-term these are the wins,’” he said.

Part of the agreement leaders reached would set up a bipartisan, bicameral select committee to explore budget process changes, but Walker noted that wouldn’t guarantee results. Others were more optimistic and seemed to believe the select committee might help prevent a backlash against GOP leaders.

“Hopefully, that will give a chance for those of us who need and want reform a place to go,” said Kentucky GOP Rep. Harold Rogers, a former Appropriations Committee chairman.

Watch: McConnell, Schumer Announce They’ve Reached Budget Agreement

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Another reason Republicans may support the deal is to prevent Ryan from having to give into Pelosi. About an hour after his comments to Roll Call, Walker tweeted, “The Budget Caps Deal is a struggle for any one with fiscal concerns. However, the longer @NancyPelosi bloviates on the House Floor against the deal — the more I’m inclined to support it.”

A call from President Donald Trump for members to back the agreement might also help put some in the “yes” column. “Republicans and Democrats must support our troops and support this Bill!” Trump tweeted Wednesday afternoon.

Revolt possible

More mainstream members of the conference are unlikely to participate in any attempt to directly question Ryan’s leadership. But the Freedom Caucus seems to be hovering around a possible revolt.

“It’s hard to say,” Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert said when asked if there would be repercussions for leadership.

“Remains to be seen; I guess it probably depends on how many Republicans vote for it and how much support there is for it,” Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry said. If leaders get a majority of the majority, he said any attack against them would be “a tough case to make.”

Most House Republicans predicted the bill would have support from more than half of their 238-member conference.

Exactly what action the Freedom Caucus would take, if any, remains to be seen, but in 2015, when it wanted to put Boehner on notice that it wanted him gone, caucus founding member Mark Meadows, now the group’s chairman, filed a motion to vacate the chair, a move challenging the speaker’s position.

The Freedom Caucus never called for a vote on the motion — it could have used a privileged resolution to force one — but the mere threat of it lingered heavy on the conference, and Boehner ultimately resigned. While a vote to remove him would have assuredly failed, Boehner was concerned about the impact it would have on the institution.

On his way out, Boehner negotiated a massive budget deal to raise sequestration spending caps and suspend the debt ceiling, the same parameters Ryan agreed to in the deal announced Wednesday.

“This is worse than what Boehner did,” Freedom Caucus member Justin Amash of Michigan said. “Boehner’s deal was $80 billion. This is $300 billion.”

Labrador, although seeing immigration as a tipping point, said there was “a lot of disappointment” over the spending deal but he doesn’t believe there would be backlash against Ryan for it.

“We’re often disappointed,” he said.

Amash disagreed on the prospect of backlash, saying, “I think there should be.”

Told it appeared the two had a difference of agreement, Labrador said, “Maybe there’s just a difference of diplomacy.”

Notably, Labrador and Amash were on their way to the Tortilla Coast restaurant, where they met up with Jordan and perhaps a few other Freedom Caucus members. They said it was an informal lunch, and not a caucus meeting, but the group has a history of plotting bold moves — like the 2013 government shutdown over the health care law — at the Tex-Mex eatery a block away from the Capitol complex.