WASHINGTON — An October filled with drama on Capitol Hill wrapped up, improbably, with something resembling a coronation: on Thursday morning, Rep. Paul Ryan was elected the 54th Speaker of the House of Representatives with much pomp and little left to chance.
The Wisconsin Republican and one-time vice presidential nominee ascended to the House’s top spot after outgoing Speaker John Boehner suddenly announced his resignation, and his heir apparent, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, withdrew his candidacy for speaker at the last minute.
The only person who could lead the GOP conference out of the wilderness was, by near unanimous consensus, Ryan. At first Ryan made it well-known he’d prefer to pore over tax policy on his Ways and Means Committee than take the Speaker’s gavel, spending October fending off courtship from Republicans nationwide to step up.
But in spite of Ryan’s initial refusal to even consider the job, Thursday’s outcome wasn’t all that surprising. After extended entreaties from members of his caucus, Ryan made it clear that he would only enter the race if he had the overwhelming support of his conference — particularly its far right wing. After some initial doubt, Ryan won over the conservatives who sank Boehner, the so-called House Freedom Caucus, by agreeing to some of the conditions they laid out, particularly some procedural rule changes.
A clean slate
After a roll-call vote and remarks from Boehner, Ryan, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the halls of the capitol buzzed with excitement for the new, 45-year-old speaker. In the Minnesota delegation, Republicans gleefully welcomed the dawn of the Ryan Era — perhaps none more so than Third District Rep. Erik Paulsen.
Paulsen is probably the Minnesotan with the closest connection to Ryan: Paulsen serves on the Ways and Means Committee Ryan chaired, and both share a wonky inclination for tax, trade, and health care policy. When Paulsen arrived in Congress in 2009, he was a regular workout companion of Ryan, who’s known for his devotion to the P90X fitness routine.
As he lined up off the House floor to take a picture with the new Speaker, Paulsen remarked that he was surprised at the turn of events that landed Ryan in the speakership. Still, he said that Ryan is “the one person that could fill this position and do it really well, and unify both the Republican conference and potentially the House and get things working again.
“I do think he’s gonna be able to bridge a lot of the divides that exist around here…I’m really optimistic and encouraged,” Paulsen added. “It’s exciting.”
Sixth District Rep. Tom Emmer shared Paulsen’s enthusiasm: “I think Paul said it best in his speech…we’re going to wipe the slate clean and move forward,” he said. “This is all about a process and then meeting the obligation we owe to the American people.”
Emmer was quick to add, however, that “we should manage expectations, because this is a big job and this isn’t someone who said, ‘I wanna be this guy.’ This is someone who was literally drafted into it.”
Democrats: gracious, but skeptical
For the most part, Democrats played the part of gracious minority on the House floor Thursday. Though 184 Democrats cast votes for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, they dutifully stood for applause lines in Ryan’s speech, and Pelosi delivered warm remarks before handing Ryan the gavel.
“What was interesting to me,” Emmer said afterward, “is that Democrats seem to be as genuinely excited about a fresh start as Republicans.”
Within the Minnesota delegation, that rang at least somewhat true. Fourth District Rep. Betty McCollum, who served on the House Budget Committee when Ryan chaired that panel, said she assumed Ryan would conduct himself in the same way Boehner did: “respecting everyone’s election certificate” and with an open door to every member, regardless of party.
McCollum added hoped Ryan’s remarks on the importance of a “respected minority” referred to Democrats, not conservative Republicans. “I think we have a lot of good ideas and things to bring to the floor,” McCollum said. “If he has challenges within his caucus, we’ve shown that we’re willing to find the common ground to move this country forward.”
In a statement, Rep. Tim Walz congratulated Ryan, and said he “look[s] forward to working with him on the issues that matter most to southern Minnesota.”
Fifth District Rep. Keith Ellison didn’t sound especially excited to be under new management, saying in a statement that the new speaker should focus on affordable housing, child care, medical research and more. “Paul Ryan may be the Speaker of the House now, but the better choice is the person who will do those things, and that’s Nancy Pelosi.”
Boehner’s obstacles aren’t going away
Though Thursday’s ceremony was mostly about Ryan, there were plenty of tributes to Boehner from both sides of the aisle. Referring to the Wednesday budget deal that averted a shutdown and debt default, McCollum said, “This country owes a debt of gratitude for the leadership John Boehner showed.”
The circumstances of Boehner’s departure — chiefly, an inability to unite the moderate and conservative wings of his conference — couldn’t help but cast a shadow on Ryan’s ascent.
Ryan himself acknowledged the House’s fissures in his speech. “Let’s be frank,” he said, “the House is broken. We’re not solving problems, we’re adding to them.” Members from across the ideological spectrum praised Ryan’s stated intent to bring the House back to so-called “regular order” — where legislation works its way to the floor via the committee process, and real budgets are passed instead of stopgap continuing resolutions.
But it’s unclear if procedural realignment will be enough to fend off the forces that drove Boehner out. Paulsen admitted Ryan is “going to have some challenges…there’s still gonna be a handful of folks who are gonna want to throw rocks, but by and large, a lot of people want to give him a shot.” Nine conservative Republicans declined to vote for Ryan, and 167 Republicans voted Wednesday to reject the bipartisan budget deal — which was similar to a plan Ryan advanced in 2013.
Among Minnesotans, Ryan may receive some benefit of the doubt by virtue of some shared Midwestern pride. He hails from the southern Wisconsin town of Janesville, about 150 miles from Minnesota’s southeastern corner, and is the first Badger Stater to hold the Speakership. (Meanwhile, the last Minnesotan to even whiff the speakership was Harold Knutson, who was the Republican whip from 1919 to 1923.)
Though Paulsen is a big Ryan fan, he admitted he could improve. “Now we gotta make him a Vikings fan,” he said. “That’s my only goal.”