Speaker Ryan Tries to Heal Fractured GOP In Contentious Year

Speaker Ryan Tries to Heal Fractured GOP In Contentious Year
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WASHINGTON — Four months into a job he admits he never wanted, House Speaker Paul Ryan is trying to recast, salvage and unite the Republican Party so it can earn Americans' trust and, ultimately, their votes by November.

He also is criticizing the Republicans' presidential front-runner because Ryan, 46, believes he is besmirching the party's ideals.

“What I have learned since taking the job is that sometimes, there are moments where conservatism has become disfigured, and as a conservative and as a leader in the Republican Party, I have an obligation to make sure that that does not continue,” Ryan said.

It's not a role he envisioned for himself.

“I don't see an alternative — otherwise, we could easily be defined as being for something that we are not, as being someone we are not,” he said.

Ryan twice has countered Donald Trump — to say that banning all non-citizen Muslims from entering the United States is wrong, and to declare unequivocally that the “Party of Lincoln” is no friend of white supremacy.

“We don't believe in religious tests,” Ryan said. “We believe in the First Amendment freedom of religion.

“We are against prejudice and bigotry in all of it forms and all of its manifestations, whether it is the people or the groups … and we want to make sure that people know that.”

Ryan brings a national perspective to his role, having been Mitt Romney's running mate in their failed 2012 campaign against President Obama.

One of his biggest surprises was learning, a week after taking the speaker's job, that he will preside over the party's nominating convention in Cleveland in July.

Ryan said he has reached out to every Republican presidential candidate, including Trump.

He dismisses any notion of being a great consensus candidate if the party goes to a brokered convention.

“I am fine right where I am,” he said, shrugging it off. “It is a very strange year already; I don't want it to get any stranger.”

The Gen-X speaker

It is no secret that the Wisconsin lawmaker known for his love of crafting policy, daily workouts and coaching his kids' sports teams was dragged reluctantly into the speakership in October after the hard-line Freedom Caucus forced out his predecessor, John Boehner.

Ryan, then chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, accepted the position only after colleagues assured him behind closed doors that the major House caucuses — including the Freedom Caucus — would endorse him.

Unifying a very factious party was one of his goals.

“My role in coming to the job, which I basically had six days notice to do, was to heal this place, to heal Congress, and get us to become a proposition party,” Ryan said.

Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., said that he and fellow Freedom Caucus members united behind Ryan because they believe he can bring their party together.

“Our country was in desperate need of true leadership,” Perry, of York County, said. “He's obviously an excellent messenger for the party and conservatism.”

Ryan begins every morning with a 6 a.m. workout — followed by some sort of breakfast meeting, a management meeting with House leaders to review the day's schedule, constituent meetings, opening the House floor for business at noon, more member meetings, a dinner meeting, and then making his way back to the Capitol to hold traditional office hours.

Finally, he meets individually with members who want to discuss problems.

“That's when I become a psychiatrist,” he jokes.

He ends the night back at his cramped quarters in the Longworth House Office Building with a call home to his wife. About 11:30 p.m., he pulls out his office cot to get a few hours of sleep.

With all of the daily urgencies and crises, he hasn't had much time to consider the immensity of the job.

A member of Generation X, he is the youngest speaker in 150 years, the first from Wisconsin and next in line to the presidency after the vice president.

“I guess because I never had designs for the job or even wanted it, I don't think about it,” he said.

“To be perfectly honest, I don't really like politics. I love policy. And I have always believed that you have to do politics in order to do the policy.”

One big upside to his job is having “a huge, positive impact on the direction of national policy,” he said.

“I have really learned a lot in the past few months, which really suits me because I like learning. I don't want to ever plateau. It is a mindset I have always had. Whether it is physical fitness, or intellectual stimulation, or career stimulation, I don't like plateauing.”

Budget test

Ryan came to the speakership wanting “to decentralize the power of the job and release power back to the members themselves.”

He and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, now face the challenge of returning Congress to the process of passing individual appropriations bills. Called “regular order,” Ryan favors that process to piling all appropriations into a giant, year-end omnibus bill that rank-and-file members despise.

The trick is that “regular order” allows every House member to debate the minutiae.

“I'd call it a little rambunctious — not disastrous — but (Ryan) is working with us,” York County's Perry said of the new speaker's first budget meeting and its disagreements between members wanting more money for defense and others wondering how that would be funded.

“Even those of us who disagree on this issue or that, we all agree we need a budget.”

He said that he and his colleagues prefer to have a hand in creating it, rather than being forced to vote on an omnibus bill crafted by House leaders.

Perry believes Ryan is trying to make the right changes to House rules that gave Boehner headaches — although, as the budget process begins, aggravations remain.

“The frustration will always be that change happens too slowly around here, especially the good things,” Perry said. “But in terms of decentralizing rule changes, as well as process and better participation for members, Ryan is making an honest effort.”

Perry said years of doing it wrong won't unravel in a day: “(Ryan) is a much better messenger, and he seeks our input and goes to people who disagree with him.”

Defining an agenda

Ryan has larger goals, too, which could recast the image of Republicans as “The Party of No” to one of ideas and aspirations for all.

He launched six committee-led task forces focused on five agendas — national security, jobs and the economy, rebuilding the military, heath care, and poverty and upward mobility.

That agenda represents priorities and participation from all his Republican members, Ryan said, and is a perfect example of his de-centralized leadership. “It's not me saying, ‘Here, this is what I want to do. Now go run on it,' but a task we've taken on together.”

Each task force is “charged with developing a bold, pro-growth agenda that will be presented to the country in the months ahead.”

Ryan is particularly interested in poverty and upward mobility, an issue he has taken on with the help of civil rights icon Bob Woodson.

“We want to restore opportunity and upward mobility and go at the root causes of poverty and breaking the cycle,” Ryan said. “The condition of your birth should not determine the outcome of your life; this is who we are as a nation.”

He believes Republicans need to connect every American with the “American Idea.”

“We need to have an agenda that is really specific and very clear about what we think is necessary to get us back to prosperity, get us back to security and get us back to having a government that is accountable to us as citizens,” he said.

“And while that sounds good in theory, we need to show what it looks like in practice, run on it and then earn the right to do it.”

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at szito@tribweb.com
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