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Paul Ryan and the fight for the GOP's soul

Less than a year ago, after Republicans rolled up big majorities in the 2014 congressional elections, their leaders set out to show the nation that conservatives were up to the challenge of governing.

"The logjam in Washington has been broken," House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared. "We will make it our job to prove the skeptics wrong."

So far, alas, the skeptics have been right. The GOP's big majority in the House became a curse, not a blessing; little of the legislation that Boehner and McConnell sought has passed. Instead, the GOP's zealously conservative Freedom Caucus pushed Boehner out of office and blocked the rise of his chosen successor, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield).

"We are not solving the country's problems; we are only adding to them," Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) acknowledged last week as he announced his decision to seek the speaker's chair.

By all accounts, Ryan is likely to win the job easily. Last week, he won support from all three wings of the House's factionalized Republicans. That will give him a chance to start over.

"We can show the country what a common-sense conservative agenda looks like," he told his colleagues.

Still, Ryan faces the same challenge that brought down Boehner and McCarthy: the Freedom Caucus, which not only spurns bipartisan compromises but has made its first goal to purge the GOP of its moderates.

And, amazingly, some Freedom Caucus members consider Ryan, a thoroughgoing conservative by any traditional definition, to be dangerously moderate too. Never mind that Mitt Romney chose Ryan as his running mate in 2012 because the congressman had championed bills to slash domestic spending and turn Medicare into a voucher plan. Ultras in the Freedom Caucus distrust Ryan because, as chairman of the House's tax-writing committee, he made a bipartisan budget deal to keep the government running in 2013. (Any deal had to be bipartisan because the Democrats had a majority in the Senate that year.)

Others worry because he long supported bipartisan efforts for comprehensive immigration reform, even though he's abandoned that goal in the face of grass-roots opposition.

One even derided Ryan for wanting to preserve time to spend with his young family. "It's like interviewing a maid for a job and she says, 'I don't clean windows,'" Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), told the Hill.

Remarkably, Ryan met these truculent revolutionaries halfway, even though he was already the choice of most House Republicans. The Freedom Caucus demanded changes in House rules to reduce the speaker's power; Ryan agreed that the GOP conference should consider their ideas. The caucus asked him to promise that he would never allow a floor vote on any measure unless a majority of Republicans supported it (the "Hastert Rule"); Ryan agreed.

And the Freedom Caucus rejected Ryan's proposal to change a rule that allows a single member to call for a vote to remove the speaker, a weapon it used against Boehner. Ryan agreed to postpone the issue.

It was a remarkable process. The Freedom Caucus, with fewer than one-fifth of GOP members in its ranks, won concessions from a man most other Republicans considered their only viable candidate for the job.

Still, beneath his show of flexibility, Ryan appeared to be pursuing a pragmatic strategy of divide and conquer, a course that might enable him to defuse the Freedom Caucus as a constantly ticking time bomb.

Ryan has the support of about two-thirds of the Freedom Caucus' members, a break from the group's customary unity. Until now, the group has maintained its influence by wielding an undivided bloc of about 40 votes, just enough to deprive Boehner or any other speaker of his working majority.

But as my colleague Lisa Mascaro pointed out in The Times last week, that unity is showing signs of fraying. At least two members recently quit the caucus, including Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove), who publicly denounced the group's hardball tactics as counterproductive.

If Ryan can co-opt half or more of the Freedom Caucus' members, the group's leverage will erode. A divided caucus won't be able to take Speaker Ryan hostage the way it tormented Boehner and McCarthy.

But making that strategy work won't be easy. Ryan's House faces a series of daunting tests, the same tough fiscal issues that divided Republicans under Boehner.

Congress must raise the federal debt limit by Nov. 3; Boehner may stay in office just long enough to engineer a bipartisan vote with Democratic support, relieving Ryan of a headache.

But soon after that, Congress must pass a funding bill to keep the government running after Dec. 11. And then Congress turns to the budget, in search of a two-year deal that would last past the 2016 presidential election.

All three measures will almost certainly need President Obama's signature to pass, which means GOP leaders will need to compromise somewhere.

If Ryan becomes the House's negotiator in chief, he'll have to make those deals under ferocious outside pressure. Conservative talk show hosts, including Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, have already denounced him as a dangerous moderate. Tea party organizations are already raising money from supporters with appeals to stop any more Ryanesque budget deals.

The GOP presidential campaign will complicate the new speaker's life too. Already, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has demanded that the House include the complete repeal of Obama's healthcare plan in any budget deal, a reprise of his demand that touched off a 16-day government shutdown in 2013.

"Whatever our differences, we're all conservatives," Ryan told House Republicans last week. His election as speaker may give his party a moment of unity, but it will also open a new phase in the unfinished battle over the GOP's soul. The members of the Freedom Caucus haven't promised him a honeymoon; only a truce.

doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

Twitter: @doylemcmanus

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