Paul Ryan's first week as House speaker: 'Wiping the slate clean,' but for how long?

Paul Ryan's first week as House speaker: 'Wiping the slate clean,' but for how long?
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) discusses his first week on the job during a briefing in the Capitol. (Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA)

The day after Paul Ryan became the new speaker of the House, he quickly and quietly wiped out the most obvious traces of his Republican predecessors.

Gone was the name of outgoing Speaker John A. Boehner from the archway to his office in the Capitol, where plans were underway to rid the smoke from Boehner’s cigarettes from the walls and carpet.

The portrait of Dennis Hastert was taken down from the Speaker's Lobby, removing the image of the previous Republican leader who pleaded guilty that same week in a hush-money case.

Ryan, the Wisconsin congressman who once resisted but now embraces the speakership, is eager to fix what he calls a "broken" GOP-led House, in part by "wiping the slate clean."


By the end of his first week on the job, he scored a modest early win: Passage of a multiyear highway bill that enjoyed robust bipartisan support after Ryan threw open the floor proceedings to allow a freewheeling debate with more than 100 amendments.

"This is a good start," Ryan said Thursday, before lawmakers dashed home for the weekend. "But we still have a ways to go."

Ryan has never been seen as a man in a hurry. In fact, his 17 years in Congress have been known more for his painstaking work crafting the big policy ideas that have become his currency in a slow and steady ascent to leadership.

But even he knows his honeymoon with skeptical conservative colleagues will be short.

Ryan's prospects for surviving the coup attempts that ultimately led Boehner to resign remain uncertain, especially as he navigates the difficult month ahead.

Conservative Republicans overwhelmingly rejected the recent $80 billion two-year budget deal, and they remain reluctant to fund the government past the Dec. 11 shutdown deadline without addressing their priorities — including GOP efforts to end federal dollars for Planned Parenthood.

To hear them out, Ryan has launched a series of listening sessions. He also already has shown a willingness to cater to the views of the most conservative members in the House Republican majority.

Ryan reversed his own position on immigration reform, siding with conservatives to declare flatly that the House "will not vote on comprehensive immigration legislation as long as President Obama is in office."

And after an open-mic discussion with rank-and-file Republicans about the year-end budget battle, he declined to promise there would be no government shutdown.

I'm not going to predetermine the outcome of negotiations that haven't even taken place yet.

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"I'm not going to predetermine the outcome of negotiations that haven't even taken place yet," Ryan said Thursday.

Democrats are warning that Ryan is leading Congress toward another shutdown crisis if he allows Republicans to push conservative priorities onto the must-pass spending bill.

“There doesn't need to be a partisan fight every time,” suggested Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who negotiated a previous budget deal with Ryan.

Wary conservative colleagues are watching Ryan's every move.

Lawmakers worked into the midnight hour to pass the highway bill, and they were "having fun," acknowledged Rep. Dave Schweikert (R-Ariz.), a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. Even some of the most "grumpy" lawmakers appeared happy to have the opportunity to legislate, he said.

“I would give it a B-plus,” said Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wis.), a former Freedom Caucus member who still aligns with conservatives, about the week.

"I don't know that anybody had fun at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. last night, but you feel like you're actually part of it. You don't feel as irrelevant," Ribble said.

As talks get underway on the spending bill, Ryan is viewed less as a negotiator than the draftsman of sweeping policy blueprints that have come to define the GOP, like his proposal to turn Medicare into a voucher program for next-generation seniors.

He appears more comfortable laying out a vision, as he intends for Congress to do heading into the 2016 presidential election, than enforcing one.

"On all the big issues of the day — jobs, the economy, poverty, national security, defense — we're going to be offering our alternatives and what we believe is the best way forward," Ryan promised.

But by week's end, he was headed out the door, planning to keep another commitment he made as speaker: weekends home with his family.

For the latest from Congress and 2016 campaign, follow @LisaMascaro

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