BALTIMORE — After years of poisonous relationships, disgust and recriminations, something bizarre happened here: House Republicans found happiness.
It’s too early to tell if it’s momentary or permanent, but House Republicans feel good about Speaker Paul Ryan’s push to develop new policies. They aren’t at risk of shutting down the government or ruining the United States’ credit rating. And they’re virtually certain to keep their majority.
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Retreats like this week’s pow-wow at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor are typically contentious affairs. For the past four years, lawmakers used it as an occasion to scream at John Boehner and Eric Cantor.
During their last session here, however, Ryan got a standing ovation as he made commitments to purse big ideas. Even Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) left feeling good.
“I don’t feel like I was vilified as much this year for speaking truth, as I have in the past,” Gohmert said.
But here’s where it gets tricky.
Ryan’s agenda includes five planks: National security; jobs and economic growth; health care; poverty and opportunity; and restoring the Constitution. And, at this point, Ryan isn’t committing to votes on anything. Instead, he’s planning to have unveiled an agenda by the time Republicans decide on their candidate. It remains to be seen whether lawmakers will be happy with plans, instead of votes.
“These are the ideas we will be advancing,” Ryan said. “We will work with our colleagues through our committee-led task forces — that means every member and their constituents will have the chance to provide their input.”
Then there’s the budget. Republican leaders say they’ll draft a 2017 fiscal blueprint, but there are conservatives that are pushing Budget Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.) to abandon the agreed upon spending levels in favor of deeper cuts. Some fiscal hardliners want to cut billions in spending from that bill.
Price (R-Ga.) said passing a budget is possible this year, but perhaps only if it’s loaded up with conservative goodies. House Republican leadership aides are worried a budget might not even pass.
“There are ways to be able to get members of the conference to be supportive of the budget even though it’s at that level. Reconciliation is one of them [plus] policy changes,” Price said. “There are all sorts of ways to be able to advance that.”
Although they are crafting an agenda aimed at showing the country they have ideas, Ryan, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) still have to govern — and that could be difficult. Just last year, the entire spending process got held up over whether it’s proper to display the confederate flag on government-owned property. All this while the presidential primary contenders slug it out and suck the oxygen from Ryan’s policy prescriptions.
Ryan, however, seems to be tuning it out. He said he didn’t even watch the GOP debate last night, and had no thoughts on whether the Canadian-born Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) should be permitted to seek the presidency.
“You think I’m going to comment on that stuff? I don’t know. We’re not worried about that,” Ryan said when asked about Ted Cruz’s eligibility. “I haven’t given it a second’s worth of thought.”
Still, it’s clear how strong Ryan’s support is within the conference: Several House Freedom Caucus members praised the speaker at an open-mic, and it was practically impossible to find a House Republican that was critical of the new speaker.
But there’s already major skepticism over whether he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) really can revive the moribund appropriations process. And as soon as the GOP senators left Charm City on Thursday afternoon, House members’ began sharply criticizing the senators they are supposed to be in better sync with.
“I want to give our leadership a chance,” said Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), a member of the raucous Freedom Caucus. But “Leader McConnell has been a bigger impediment to progress than Speaker Boehner was.”
The animosity between the two bodies is so bad that House Republicans begun clamoring here for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to rewrite the chamber’s arcane rules so Democrats cannot prevent votes on spending bills.
McConnell has developed a task force to study the idea of making passing spending bills easier, but his caucus is already divided over what to do. Meanwhile, House members are insisting that McConnell move more quickly and steamroll Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) by changing the Senate rules, perhaps unilaterally.
“They’ve got this 19th century rule to stall progress for 21st century problems. And you’ve got freshman over there writing about how great the filibuster is,” said Rep. Bill Flores of Texas, the chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.