Paul Ryan faces his first big test as speaker: Avert a government shutdown

Paul Ryan faces his first big test as speaker: Avert a government shutdown
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan will aim to leverage his political honeymoon into a strategy that will avert another federal shutdown. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan faces his first big test as Congress stares down a deadline for a task that has become increasingly difficult: pass a bill to fund the government.

With just a handful of workdays remaining before the Dec. 11 deadline, the new speaker will aim to leverage his political honeymoon into a strategy that will avert another federal shutdown.


But already Ryan is under pressure to tack on a host of GOP policy provisions to the $1.1-trillion spending bill -- among them efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, halt the entry of Syrian refugees into the U.S. and repeal Obamacare.

Forcing any of those extras into the bill might bolster support from Republican conservatives, but it would also unleash a backlash from Democrats, setting up a showdown in Congress and with the White House.

"We obviously have difference of opinions on all of these big issues," Ryan said Tuesday, declining to explain how they might be resolved. "Those negotiations are ongoing right now."

The Wisconsin Republican received an assist from House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, the No. 2 Republican, who suggested Monday that the Dec. 11 deadline to pass a spending bill might slip to Dec. 18, allowing more time to get rank-and-file Republicans on board.

Leaders need to tamp down GOP dissent over what will probably be a compromise with Democrats.

"Our first principle starting out is to get the most conservative bill we can," McCarthy told reporters Monday in the Capitol, saying he was "hopeful" the voting could be wrapped up by the 11th, but noting that Dec. 18 is the final workday before lawmakers break for the Christmas holidays.

"I wish it would go a little faster," he said. "If not, we're here until the 18th, and it won't make any difference. We'll get it done."

He added, "I do not see a shutdown happening."

President Obama previously said he would not sign another temporary funding bill beyond the one that runs out Dec. 11, but the White House softened that Monday, opening the door for a stopgap measure for just a few days.

Both sides had hoped that the two-year budget accord reached this fall would create a smoother landing for the year-end spending bill. But staff negotiators have struggled over working nights and weekends to try to reach a compromise.

The days ahead will be pivotal for Ryan, who has enjoyed mostly positive reviews since replacing beleaguered Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) this fall.

But Ryan's leadership has not yet been seriously tested.

"I say with some confidence that the newly elected speaker of the House doesn't want to preside over a government shutdown six weeks into his tenure," White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.

Just two months ago, the fight over GOP efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, led in part by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the GOP presidential candidate, helped push Boehner out of office. Conservatives rallied opposition to Planned Parenthood after secretly recorded videos showed officials for the family planning organization discussing the use of fetal tissue for research.


Boehner decided to resign after conservatives threatened to oust him for refusing to engage in a protracted fight that could have resulted in a shutdown.

Hoping to avoid a similar outcome and unite the fractious GOP majority, Ryan vowed to change the culture of House leadership, mainly by meeting the Republican lawmakers' demands to be more involved in the decision-making process.

Ryan has tapped the chairmen of the Appropriations subcommittees -- the leaders responsible for the spending bill -- to sit down with rank-and-file lawmakers to craft priorities in the pending legislation.

And the new speaker launched a second weekly conference meeting -- the private GOP sessions in the Capitol basement -- as a forum to discuss the thorny details of various policies.

"Our challenge that Paul has set out for himself -- doing a little more regular order, doing bigger issues -- you see us working toward that," McCarthy said. "They feel they're being listened to."

Reinforcing that change is a two-way street, Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) reminded his team in a memo released late Monday. The days of "hope yes; vote no," are over, he said.

"Too many in our conference are falling into the pattern of voting no on tough bills while actually hoping the bill passes because they know that the outcome will be even worse if the bill fails," Scalise wrote in a section of the memo titled "Hope yes? Then vote yes!"

"I hope and expect you will do your part to help us build consensus and help members lean in."

As negotiations continue over the spending bill, issues that had been priorities just a few weeks ago have shifted.

Democrats, for example, are warning Republicans to tone down their criticism of Planned Parenthood in the aftermath of a gunman opening fire last week at a Colorado facility, killing three.

"Republicans continue to pile on, despite the tragedy in Colorado," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).

And McCarthy indicated that many lawmakers in both parties are more concerned with security issues after the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Legislation to stop Syrian refugees from being resettled in the U.S. won widespread support in the House. Now GOP leaders are focusing their attention on beefing up security in the visa waiver program.

Under new legislation being drafted, the House may try to require visitors from Europe and countries that are not required to obtain U.S. visas to go through additional passport controls and screenings before entering the country.

Democrats and the administration have also proposed changes to tighten the visa waiver program that could provide the beginnings of a compromise with the GOP.

Congress is racing against the clock to finish up a variety of other must-do work before breaking for the holidays.

Legislation to provide multi-year funding for federal highway projects is nearing completion in advance of the Dec. 4 deadline. And efforts are underway to wrap up an ambitious effort to reform education policy by replacing the No Child Left Behind program with an alternative that has drawn mixed reviews.

Republicans are also taking aim at Obama's efforts to reach a climate change accord during negotiations in Paris this month with bills to disapprove or defund any agreements reached.

And lawmakers are hoping to approve a package of specialty tax breaks that routinely expire at the end of each year, but typically are extended in a bipartisan vote.

They also want to extend the James Zadroga 9/11 healthcare act, which provides monitoring and treatment for tens of thousands of emergency personnel and others who were exposed to toxins at the site of the 2001 World Trade Center attack; the program expired in the fall but enjoys bipartisan support.

But first, the Senate was preparing to vote Wednesday on another attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act – this time using a special procedure that is likely to ultimately send the bill to Obama's desk for a veto.

"A total waste of time here," said an exasperated Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Democratic leader.

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