The man many Republicans would like to see as the next speaker of the House of Representatives has gotten really good at saying “no” over the past year.
Still, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan continues to get top billing as the only Republican who can unite the fractious Republican majority in the U.S. House, the party’s largest in more than 80 years.
In January, the 45-year-old Ryan said no to running for president in 2016. Last month after Speaker John Boehner announced his retirement, Ryan said no again. And when Boehner’s heir apparent — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy — suddenly withdrew his candidacy, Ryan’s office issued a statement within the half-hour saying again, no, he would not be a candidate for speaker.
“I don’t want to be speaker. It’s a good job for an empty nester,” Ryan, the father of three school-age children, told reporters in Wisconsin this month.
Many Republicans won’t take Ryan’s no for an answer. Boehner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and other prominent Republicans have urged the nine-term congressman to reconsider.
“There’s a reason everybody’s looking at Paul — he is the consensus choice,” said fellow Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. “Other people may be able to step up to the plate, may be able to forge that consensus. But we already know Paul has already forged it. He’s already everybody’s choice.”
Ryan’s ability to walk that fine line between the Republican Party’s hard-line conservative and its establishment wings goes back years, but it’s rooted in his budgets. When he became the ranking GOP member on the House Budget Committee in 2007, Ryan proposed slashing hundreds of billions of dollars of future government spending, including what would amount to deep cuts for future recipients of Social Security and Medicare.
“It was because he was able to talk about those things that the Tea Party really kind of birthed,” said Christian Schneider, a conservative columnist for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and fan of Ryan’s.
By 2012, Ryan’s budget proposed cutbacks to other safety net program, like food stamps, which Ryan likened to a “hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.”
Only a handful of Republicans signed on to early drafts, but in 2012, Ryan was Romney’s pick to be the GOP vice presidential nominee and his budget became, in effect, the party’s platform. Still, Ryan could also work with Democrats from time to time — including a 2013 agreement to delay automatic budget cuts.
But the 2013 spending deal, Ryan’s past votes for the 2009 bank bailout and the 2001 No Child Left Behind education law and his support for an immigration overhaul have earned Ryan the suspicion of some in the conservative grass roots, warned Schneider.
“Because of that, the very Tea Party he helped create has now turned on him,” said Schneider.
It’s no sure thing that the block of no-compromise conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus who have held up this speaker election would support Ryan. For Johnson in the Senate, the question is whether Ryan wants the job.
“If he decides to do this, from my standpoint, this is a political sacrifice on his part from what he really wants to do, and it’s a sacrifice in terms of time away from his family,” said Johnson.
As chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Ryan would be at the center of any effort to rewrite the tax code under a Republican president and still make it back to his home in Janesville, Wis., on the weekends. But as speaker, he’d have to make some of the hard choices that would very likely alienate many of the very people who find him so likable today.