WASHINGTON – Paul Ryan unanimously won the nomination of his House Republican colleagues Tuesday to continue as speaker and serve as the chief legislative partner to President-elect Donald Trump.
“Welcome to the dawn of a new unified Republican government,” he told reporters ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
Ryan must now win a floor vote in January of all 435 House members. If about two dozen Republicans were to withhold their support, his election would be thrown in doubt.
Several Republicans made clear this week that although Trump’s victory may have eased the internal party tensions that threatened Ryan’s speakership before the election, it has not eliminated them entirely.
“I haven’t heard from him what he wants to change – what’s going to be different the next two years than the last two years?” said Rep. Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, a co-founder of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus. “So far, I’m not hearing anything about changing the way we do business here in Washington, so I’m not ready to support him yet.”
Labrador is in a clear minority among House Republicans – Ryan, R-Wis., enjoys broad support among the GOP rank-and-file – but his qualms reflect ongoing discomfort over how Ryan’s brand of Republican politics will meld with Trump’s. He was among a handful of members who said Tuesday they would still consider opposing Ryan then.
The tension is manifest in Trump’s plans for his White House. On Sunday, he chose Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, a longtime Ryan friend and ally from Wisconsin, as his chief of staff while also tapping a campaign official who has sought to undermine Ryan, Stephen Bannon, to a coequal position as chief strategist.
On significant matters such as trade policy, immigration reform and entitlement cuts, Ryan and Trump have different views. And Trump’s enthusiastic backers in Congress bristled when Ryan distanced himself from his party’s presidential nominee – withholding his endorsement for several weeks after Trump clinched the nomination, for instance.
Ryan instead hit the campaign trail and the TV airwaves holding a copy of the “Better Way” policy agenda he developed – one that mostly ignored the areas where Trump’s agenda clashed with tenets of conservative doctrine. In media interviews since the election, he has pointed to the agenda as a blueprint for major legislation that can be enacted with a Republican White House and Congress working in tandem.
Trump and Ryan met last week on Capitol Hill and appeared before cameras together for the first time since the campaign began. Both men have said in the past week that action to repeal the Affordable Care Act, secure the southern U.S. border and cut taxes are among their shared priorities.
“We are on the same page,” Ryan said Tuesday, citing recent conversations with Vice President-elect Mike Pence. “We will be working hand in glove.”
In a closed-door conference meeting Tuesday, each GOP House member was given one of Trump’s signature red “Make America Great Again” hats.
That show of unity has mostly quieted two groups of Republicans that have been vexed by how Ryan has handled Trump. One consists of early and enthusiastic Trump supporters who bristled at how Ryan kept Trump at arm’s length during the presidential campaign.
One member of that group, Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., would not commit Monday to supporting Ryan as speaker but also said “everyone seems to be on the same page now.” Barletta was among a handful of members who rose during the closed-door conference meeting Tuesday morning to urge Ryan to delay Tuesday’s scheduled leadership votes.
But another early Trump backer, Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., gave Ryan a full-throated endorsement Monday.
“He is the best positioned and best prepared person to be speaker of the House,” Cramer said. “I think clearly the time to move forward with a Republican agenda is now. Now is not the time to have civil war.”
The other restive group is the Freedom Caucus, members of which also pressed for a delay in elections. Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., for instance, said Monday that “a smart, rational conference would want to analyze an historic election like the country has never seen” before voting on its leaders.
Labrador dismissed the notion that Ryan holds an equal claim to lead Republicans alongside Trump and mocked the idea that the election results constituted a mandate for the Ryan policy agenda.
“Our leadership needs to understand that the American people sent a message to the House. They sent somebody like Donald Trump to change the way Washington works,” he said. “I hope they understand that business as usual is not going to work.”
But the Freedom Caucus, despite rumblings that it might demand a seat at the GOP leadership table, did not run a candidate against Ryan or for any other post.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., another Freedom Caucus leader, said the leadership elections “came in roaring like a lion” but are “going to go out as gentle as a lamb.”
“Our focus has shifted more to how do we make sure that we have a good plan on supporting the initiatives that are important to the American people,” he said Monday. “As long as the existing leadership’s willing to do that, we’re focused more on the policy and the legislative components than the control components.”
But implicit in that concession is a threat: If Ryan diverges too far from Trump, a GOP rear guard stands ready to challenge him – and oust him, if necessary. And the tests stand to be frequent, starting with a Dec. 9 deadline for extending federal spending. Conservatives are pushing Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to back away from a year-long spending bill to be negotiated with a lame-duck President Obama.
In a gesture of unity, Ryan chose three members from differing wings of the party to place his name in nomination Tuesday: Rep. Chris Collins, N.Y., an early Trump backer; Rep. Mick Mulvaney, S.C., a co-founder of the Freedom Caucus; and Rep. Martha McSally, Ariz., a member of the moderate Tuesday Group.