Prior to his retirement, Speaker Boehner gifted incoming Speaker Ryan with a budget deal essentially removing the threat of a government shutdown in December. Congressional Democrats and President Obama got an increase in non-defense domestic spending which ensured their support for a straightforward year-long spending bill. Republicans got real entitlement reform and solidified defense spending in the deal. All should be happy as Appropriators begin work on an omnibus.
However, the shutdown threat has reemerged in the form of policy riders. Democrats are demanding that controversial riders be omitted from the bill while some Republicans and right-wing outside groups want to attach their priority policy riders on this must-sign legislation. Fair or unfair, one of the biggest complaints of Speaker Boehner’s tenure was that he capitulated too quickly to the president’s demands --- a perception that Speaker Ryan now must avoid if he is to keep his conference in line. In other words, Speaker Ryan needs to show House Republicans that he can take on the president and win.
Conservatives are eager to attach a number of policy riders to the bill, including Planned Parenthood and other pro-life policies, Dodd-Frank, the Affordable Care Act, the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, and immigration, to name a few. In light of the coordinated ISIL attacks in Paris, Republicans now seemed poised to harness their efforts towards blocking funds to relocate Syrian refugees to the United States in the omnibus. A number of Republican presidential candidates have come out in favor of suspending or blocking refugees, further ratcheting up the pressure on Congressional Republicans to address the issue. Speaker Ryan has made clear that he intends to address the problem this week in the House. But the bill likely can’t pass the Senate, let alone garner enough votes to override a presidential veto. Back to the omnibus it is.
Can Ryan Go Hard Right, and Still Win?
Ryan only wants to vote on the omnibus once. And he would be well-served to avoid the now-commonplace ‘ping-pong’ play, whereby the House sends over a bill, the Senate amends it, the House swallows the amended bill, WH signs it, and conservatives get upset. What’s the alternative to ping pong? Now here is the million (technically trillion) dollar question: does Speaker Ryan take on the White House and Congressional Democrats by attaching the Syrian rider or a few of these riders onto the omnibus knowing how it plays out? And can he win?
Threading this policy needle is a major task for the new speaker. As such, it will provide a clearer sense of how Speaker Ryan intends to negotiate, now that he sits at the intersection of Congress and the White House.
Or Will Internal Process Reforms Help Ryan Pass a Clean Omnibus?
To date, Speaker Ryan has followed through on a number of his promises to rework the internal processes of the House. First, the Highway bill came to the floor under an open process, with well over 100 amendments for floor consideration. This allowed members to feel involved in the process, another perceived change from the previous leadership tenure. Secondly, he is following through on his commitment to reform the Steering Committee, which assigns chairmanship and committee assignments to rank-and-file members. With guidance from a working group, it appears the Steering Committee will drop the “A” committee chairman in favor of more at-large rank-and-file members on the committee. And we expect him to endorse further rule and process changes going forward.
Clearly these process-related changes have ingratiated Ryan with the Conference’s most conservative members. But it remains to be seen whether process improvements alone can satisfy a voting block grounded in ideology, and wanting to see leadership stand up for their brand of conservatism. But if the new Speaker circumvents regular order by bringing a non-amendable full-year omnibus to the floor, and without the red meat riders, should he expect his honeymoon with conservatives come to an abrupt end?