If House Speaker Paul Ryan’s tenure ever devolves into the bitter infighting that characterized the final months of his predecessor’s time in office, Heritage Action’s policy summit on Wednesday made clear exactly where he and House conservatives would disagree.
Bringing his unity plea to the heart of the far right’s political operation at Heritage for America’s Conservative Policy Summit, the Wisconsin Republican delivered a keynote address that repeated themes he has hit on numerous times since assuming the speakership.
Ryan focused a significant portion of his speech on making the case that Republicans only strengthen their opponents by aggressively pursuing politically dubious objectives — a pointed statement given that he stood in the auditorium of an organization that has proved to be an incessant thorn in the side of GOP congressional leaders.
“The Left would love nothing more than for a fragmented conservative movement to stand in a circular firing squad, so the progressives can win by default,” Ryan said. “When voices in the conservative movement demand things that they know we can’t achieve with a Democrat in the White House, all that does is depress our base and in turn help Democrats stay in the White House.”
“Don’t take the bait,” he counseled. “Don’t fight over tactics.”
The only problem? Fighting over tactics is exactly what caused the formation of the House Freedom Caucus in the first place.
Speaking about an upcoming budget resolution at the Heritage event, founding Freedom Caucus member Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) criticized leaders’ current plan to write a spending outline that conforms to a fiscal deal from last fall that most Republicans rejected because it boosted funding levels.
“I think there’s a way out. And I hope Speaker Ryan considers this way out,” he said. “That would be to simply pass a budget off of the floor now that is a good Republican budget … is a number we can all rally behind.”
“If that causes difficulties with the Senate down the road so be it. The House should pass what the House wants to pass,” he continued.
It’s not that they don’t like Ryan personally. The 40-or-so Freedom Caucus members have been clear that they are enjoying parts of Ryan’s still-young speakership.
The former vice presidential candidate has gone out of his way to give members more opportunity to chime in on conference priorities, is allowing more amendment votes on the House floor and has done away with the types of internal punishment that so aggravated members during former Speaker John Boehner’s rule.
“Speaker Ryan is entirely different,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) at the Heritage event. Meadows became a rallying figure for frustrated conservatives last year when he was almost stripped of his subcommittee gavel for bucking leadership on a procedural vote.
“I can tell you from someone who has experienced just a little bit of retribution, that it is a new day,” he said.
At the core of any disconnect between Ryan and his right flank is a difference in identity. Even though the mentee of former Rep. Jack Kemp often describes himself as a “movement conservative,” Ryan came into power, and has pitched himself since, as a unifier.
“To quote William Wallace in ‘Braveheart,’ we have to unite the clans,” he said in his speech Wednesday.
But Freedom Caucus members — who were jokingly introduced as the “bomb-thrower caucus” by The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes at the Heritage event — consider themselves revolutionaries. And as a result, they believe they are inherently destined to ruffle feathers.
“It’s not easy to have a revolution,” Mulvaney said. “You will invariably upset people.”
“It won’t be easy, never is. Anything worth doing is hard,” echoed Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). “Sometimes you tick people off.”
So far, the conservative bloc and Ryan have managed to get along. A massive omnibus and tax extender package that was met on the far right with deep disappointment was widely considered to be Boehner’s legacy and not Ryan’s fault. Ryan was even able to rally a majority of his conference to support the bill, something Boehner had failed to do on every fiscal measure in 2015.
But Ryan’s conciliatory gestures may only be able to bridge a fundamentally divergent gap so far.
Freedom Caucus members’ resistance to the proffered budget, expected to make its way to the House floor in just over a month, led to a meeting Tuesday night in Ryan’s office between him, members of the group and House Budget Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.). Ryan’s office dubbed the confab “budget and beers,” and said it was a chance to get a head start on hammering out budget details.
Asked for his take on Tuesday’s meeting, Freedom Caucus Rep. David Brat (R-Va.) groaned and then asked, “That good enough?”