When Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) took over as House speaker, it was supposed to signal a new era for Republicans — the arrival of a younger, more conservative visionary, who scrubbed the cigarette smoke stains from outgoing Speaker John A. Boehner’s Capitol office, and promised a fresh start.
Republicans craved the upbeat, button-down image Ryan offered. And his team served up the Ryan brand with marketing flourish — lofty speeches, a TV blitz and videos galore, including a cheeky snow-cam from the speaker’s balcony showing the winter blizzard over the National Mall.
But five months in, Ryan finds himself with a familiar problem. As Congress is careening toward another budget crisis and the Republican Party is ripping itself apart over Donald Trump’s rise, the man best known as the architect of the GOP’s austere spending blueprint is likely to miss an April 15 deadline to approve a new funding plan for 2017.
He’s been unable to overcome the same resistance from the conservative House Freedom Caucus that doomed his predecessor, and is so far similarly unwilling to use the power of the speaker’s office to force stragglers to fall into line.
On the top issue of the day, the turbulent presidential race, Ryan has refused to wade into the muck, fearful of alienating House Republicans who back Donald Trump, but also worried about tarnishing his own image in case the party needs his help at a brokered convention in July.
To some, Ryan’s repeated calls for Republicans to “raise our gaze” and his frequent attempts to position himself as the GOP’s deep thinker are starting to give off an air of ivory tower insignificance. Conservatives wonder if he's still a "young gun" trying to shake up the party.
At a Trump rally in Ryan’s Wisconsin hometown of Janesville last week, the crowd booed the mention of his name.
“Now we understand why he didn’t want the job: Congress is broken and it’s hard for anybody to fix it,” said John Feehery, a former Republican aide and now a GOP strategist. “Jumping on the back of this tiger has not been easy.”
Allies see Ryan, who declined to be interviewed for this story, as a leader who is slowly and deliberately piecing back together a Republican Party that appears to have imploded during President Obama’s years in the White House.
In many ways, the speaker’s problems are of his own making, the result of a leadership strategy he helped forge to recruit the most conservative candidates to run for office and then, after Republicans won the House majority in the 2010 midterm election, reject almost all of Obama’s initiatives.
“It’s led to all this anger,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “They tried to make this entire process look ugly and illegitimate. It worked. In the process of winning these short-term victories in the midterms, they laid the groundwork for Trump.”
Now, some of the same Freedom Caucus lawmakers who forced Boehner’s early retirement are bearing down on Ryan.
Many are scoffing at the higher government funding levels Boehner had accepted as part of a compromise with Democrats last year. That deal was supposed to “clear the barn” for Ryan by reversing some of the automatic “sequester” cuts that factions of both parties said were too severe. But many Republicans who didn’t like the deal then don’t like it any better now, and Ryan doesn’t have enough votes to pass the budget without them.
Without an approved budget, it will be harder for Congress to pass the annual appropriation bills needed to fund government services. Ryan can’t rely on Democrats, as Boehner did, because the proposed budget contains Republican priorities, like a Medicare overhaul with a new voucher program, that Democrats oppose.
Ryan initially escaped blame from conservatives for the deal Boehner made, but the honeymoon is now over and Congress risks a government shutdown if new money is not approved by Oct. 1.
“Victory would be not shutting down the government,” said Ron Bonjean, a former House Republican leadership aide who is now a strategist.
Some in the Freedom Caucus appreciate Ryan's willingness to work with them, but see little change in the outcome. “Paul was part of the Boehner entourage,” said Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), a Freedom Caucus member.
Ryan is falling back on what he has always done best: talking about ideas.
This is how Ryan rose in Congress, as a skilled communicator of a conservative vision. Now, rather than using the biggest House majority in generations as a legislative factory that churns out bills, Ryan is turning it into a think tank to produce ideological position papers on taxes, national security, poverty and other issues to inform the eventual Republican presidential nominee at the party’s convention in July.
“What he’s trying to do is provide an alternative to a presidential campaign that many Republicans are looking on with horror,” Ornstein said. “He’s trying to say, 'Look at me, I’m a different kind of Republican.'”
Ryan has said flatly that he would not be the party’s nominee. But his name is often mentioned as a last-minute alternative to Trump or Sen. Ted Cruz, similar to the way he was drafted to take over as speaker.
Ryan is also working to ease the party in-fighting by rebuilding trust, little by little, giving detractors a seat at the table and throwing open decision-making to the troops, even if that means House Republicans cannot agree on a strategy that will pass a budget by the April deadline.
So far, the outcome has been a decidedly improved mood on Capitol Hill. Where previously the party’s testy private sessions ended with Republicans lining up at microphones to fume at leadership, they now wait their turn to offer solutions in a more cooperative atmosphere.
Several bills have been signed into law under Ryan’s tenure, including a multiyear highway funding measure and an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind education law. The ones that Obama vetoed — including a repeal of the Affordable Care Act — have become a badge of honor for Republicans who pride themselves on forcing a showdown with the White House.
But the stalemate on the budget is a particularly frustrating setback for lawmakers who just a few years ago promoted a policy of no-budget-no-pay — blocking congressional paychecks until a budget was approved.
Detractors see Ryan squandering the House majority by failing to dig in and lead. Democrats roll their eyes at his inability to muscle his troops. And even rank-and-file Republicans say it’s tough trying to convince voters back home that the party deserves the White House when Congress is idling.
“When push comes to shove, you have to be a leader,” said Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.), adding that congressional inaction is fueling Trump’s rise. “Putting it in neutral is dumber than standing water. It isn’t selling.”