WASHINGTON (AP) — House Speaker Paul Ryan called on Republican Wednesday to unify and stop fighting each other as he tried steering his fractious party into an election year devoid of the collisions between conservatives and pragmatists that transformed parts of 2015 into a GOP nightmare.
“We have to be straight with each other and more importantly, we have to be straight with the American people,” Ryan, R-Wis., said at a Heritage Action for America policy meeting. “We can’t promise that we can repeal Obamacare when a guy with the last name Obama is president. All that does is set us up for failure and disappointment and recriminations.”
That conjured memories of the GOP’s unsuccessful 2013 effort — led in part by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas — to force President Barack Obama to repeal his health care overhaul, one of his legislative crown jewels. That battle produced a 16-day partial government shutdown that the public hated and damaged the Republican brand.
Ryan has avoided taking sides in the presidential contest and did not mention Cruz, a leading GOP contender, in his remarks. But he made clear that he considers such tactics damaging.
“When voices in the conservative movement demand things that they know we can’t achieve with a Democrat in the White House, all that does is depress our base and in turn help Democrats stay in the White House,” Ryan said. “We can’t do that anymore.”
Ryan’s remarks followed a year of bitter strife between congressional conservatives and more pragmatic Republicans that led to the abrupt departure of the previous speaker, Ohio Rep. John Boehner.
The party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, Ryan ascended to the top House job at the behest of party elders last fall. He has repeatedly stressed the need for GOP harmony while promising to listen to rank-and file Republicans and give them more power.
One sign of that outreach was choosing Heritage Action, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, as a forum Wednesday. The group is one of Washington’s more politically aggressive conservative organizations, at times pressuring Republicans to vote against measures backed by GOP leaders that it deems insufficiently conservative.
Jim DeMint, Heritage Foundation president and a former congressional colleague of Ryan’s, said in a brief interview that he’s met with Ryan and lauded his efforts to engage conservatives.
“Rather than try to beat conservatives as Boehner did, Paul is trying to harness that energy in a positive direction,” DeMint said.
Ryan’s cautions were echoed by some conservatives at the conference.
“If you want to know, members of Congress, why you have Donald Trump, go look in the mirror, because we’ve over-promised and under-delivered for so long,” said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., referring to the billionaire GOP presidential hopeful.
Even so, Republicans may struggle this year to push a budget through Congress because of a brewing rebellion on the right over spending.
Members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, the group that forced Boehner out, say they can’t support any budget that endorses last fall’s bipartisan pact between GOP leaders and Obama that increased spending for the Pentagon and domestic agencies.
It took many Democratic votes to pass last fall’s budget deal, but any GOP budget effort this spring has to be a Republican-only exercise since it will embody sharp spending cuts opposed by Democrats. The Freedom Caucus is balking at supporting any budget that endorses spending increases.
Failing to pass a budget could be a significant embarrassment for Ryan. He wants the House to finish its budget work quickly this year as a signal the GOP can govern and so Republicans can focus on churning out proposals underscoring the party’s ideas on topics like national security, the economy and health care.
Ryan met with Freedom Caucus members Tuesday night to discuss the budget.
Ryan said Wednesday that the GOP must unite behind “a bold, pro-growth agenda” that it can display to voters.
“We can’t fall into the progressives’ trap of acting like angry reactionaries,” Ryan said. “The left would love nothing more than for a fragmented conservative movement to stand in a circular firing squad, so the progressives can win by default.”
Ryan said Obama will try helping elect another Democrat to the White House by distracting voters.
“So he’s going to try to get us talking about guns or some other hot-button issue and not about his failures on ISIS or the economy or national security,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State extremist group.
“Don’t take the bait,” Ryan said. “Don’t fight over tactics. And don’t impugn people’s motives.”