Before Speaker John Boehner hands over his gavel to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), as expected later this week, he’s offering the current Ways and Means chair an enormous gift: a big, almost-miraculous fiscal deal that takes off of the table most of the contentious issues facing Congress between now and the 2016 election.
According to initial reports, the emerging deal includes a hike to the debt limit, a two-year funding bill and even a re-balancing of the Social Security disability trust fund, which was expected to dry up next year. Additionally, short-term transportation legislation giving lawmakers a few more weeks to finish a multi-year bill is also moving forward. If those deals can make it through Congress as planned in the next few days, the initial months of Ryan’s presumed speakership will be a cake walk compared to the high-stakes deadlines he was previously facing.
“[I]f Boehner can pull this off it will help Ryan a lot,” Ron Peters, a University of Oklahoma professor of political science who has written a number of books about Congress, wrote in an email to TPM Monday afternoon.
Peters outlined a scenario in which the debt ceiling and budget bill will pass the House largely on Democratic votes, with maybe as few as a couple of dozen Republican joining to push it over. Boehner will get the blame from hardline conservatives on his way out the door, and Ryan will avoid all the unpleasantness of having to work through the looming deadlocks in his first weeks as speaker.
“[I]f Ryan had committed to not bringing a bill to the floor (even a debt ceiling bill) without the support of the majority of Republicans supporting it,” Peters wrote — and reports suggest he did make Republicans that promise — “then either he’d have to preside over a default or else he’d have to bring a majority of Republicans along.”
Under Ryan, Congress’ abilities to advance past the fiscal deadlines — which were Nov. 3 for the debt ceiling and Dec. 11 for government funding — without a crisis would have been tricky. Any move that appeared to GOP hardliners to be a compromise with Democrats, much less one that depended on their votes, would have risked a return to the brinkmanship-or-else tactics that forced Boehner to announce he was stepping down in the first place — and at a time when Ryan needed to be making a first impression as a speaker.
“One of the things that the Freedom Caucus and very conservative Republicans have been upset about is Boehner bringing things to the floor that pass with a minority of Republican votes and a majority of Democratic votes — those dynamics are still going to be at play regardless who the speaker is,” Molly Reynolds, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, told TPM Monday morning. “It’s much better for Ryan for [a debt ceiling hike] to be the last thing that Boehner does, as opposed to the first thing that Ryan does.”
At this point, Boehner has nothing to lose. As was the case with the short-term spending bill he pushed through last month after announcing his resignation, the Freedom Caucus has little leverage over the speaker without the threat of dethroning him. Assuming congressional leaders can secure enough votes on both sides of the aisle to pass this latest deal, the worst the Freedom Caucus can do is vote against it. Ryan could even join them to prove his conservative bona fides.
“While Ryan may eventually come out against the deal, he must be secretly breathing a sigh of relief,” Matthew Green, a Catholic University political science professor who has written about the speakership, told TPM via email.
The timeline for passing the deal will be tight, but if the legislative bombs at issue are defused, Ryan can then move on to the institutional changes to the House rules that were a major concern in his discussion with hardliners to win their support for his speakership.
“The institution needs copious amounts of rule changes — and some of them the boys on the right might not like,” said Jim Dyer, a former appropriations staff director and now a Republican strategist at the Podesta Group. “But the reality of life is the word dysfunction has been used entirely too long in the House and I think people of goodwill on all sides will want things to improve.”
Some of the proposed changes — namely a discussion Ryan wanted to have about “de-weaponizing” the motion to vacate — have reportedly been pushed off to be part of a later, larger package. But once a fiscal deal is secured, the issue can again become a priority.
“They are looking to do some conference rules changes in the immediate term,” said Bipartisan Policy Center congressional scholar Don Wolfensberger, who says he has been in contact with the GOP conference staff. “Then they will continue to solicit ideas on what standing rules changes there should be for the House itself.”
Along with rule changes, Ryan can also focus a creating a leadership culture that further separates him from Boehner.
“You have a big party with a lot of members and its diverse: You bring folks into the decision-making process so they feel like they’re part of the final outcome,” Green told TPM in a phone interview Monday morning. “One of the complaints we’ve heard from Freedom Caucus members is that under Boehner the leadership was very non-communicative, they were insular. So no one knew what was going until the last minute.”
Ryan may be able to convince the hardline doubters that those days are over, but not before Boehner spurns them by pushing one more last-minute, major bipartisan deal on his way out the door.