How Paul Ryan unified a fractured GOP

Over 70% of the House Freedom Caucus supports Ryan
Over 70% of the House Freedom Caucus supports Ryan

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    Over 70% of the House Freedom Caucus supports Ryan

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Story highlights

  • The Wisconsin Republican's decision comes two weeks after House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy pulled out of the race
  • While Ryan initially resisted calls for him to run, he said earlier this week he would consider a bid if he could be a "unity candidate"

Washington (CNN)Rep. Paul Ryan's winning pitch to House conservatives amounted to this: Let's start over.

For years, tensions had been boiling between the hard right of the Republican Party and the House leadership, a battle that effectively pushed Speaker John Boehner out of office and ended the bid of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to succeed him.
But Ryan, facing skepticism from hardliners in the House Freedom Caucus, spoke bluntly to the conservatives, telling them that he was more ideologically in line with them than with moderates in the so-called Tuesday Group. He said he was not the type of leader who is out to seek retribution, unlike past leaders.
    The 45-year-old Wisconsin congressman said he would only push important bills such as immigration that have a majority of support from Republicans -- abiding by the "Hastert Rule." He promised bold policy ideas on the House floor like welfare reform, health care legislation and a tax overhaul -- and that the chamber would stand firm on those policy proposals with Senate Republicans and the White House. He softened his demand to roll back a procedure allowing lawmakers to overthrow a sitting speaker.
    And perhaps the most disarming pitch: He said he was ready to walk away if they said 'no' to him.
    What he achieved was a truce between disgruntled conservatives and a GOP leadership desperate to get the House back on track. It's a ceasefire in a long-running intra-party war that has cost the Republicans Senate seats, bottled up legislation in Congress and weakened their hand against President Barack Obama.
    With his national profile and bona fides with the right, Ryan was perhaps the only Republican who could make that pitch, showcasing strength that will immediately be put to the test when he's expected to be elected speaker next week.
    Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, said a Ryan pitch that won him over was: "Go early and be firm" -- the idea that the House would stand on its principles in fights with the other body.
    "Find a policy, take a position as a conference and make the Senate do something to stand firm," Jordan said, paraphrasing Ryan.
    After the conservative caucus announced it would support him -- but not endorse him -- Ryan later won over the two other coalitions in the House: The Tuesday Group and the Republican Study Committee, another conservative faction. By Thursday evening, Ryan made it official: He was running for speaker, telling his colleagues in a letter he was "eager" to do the job.
    "I never thought I'd be speaker," Ryan said in a statement. "But I pledged to you that if I could be a unifying figure, then I would serve -- I would go all in. After talking with so many of you, and hearing your words of encouragement, I believe we are ready to move forward as one, united team. And I am ready and eager to be our speaker."

    Speaker wasn't the job Ryan wanted

    It's a dramatic political twist for Ryan, the GOP's vice presidential nominee in 2012 and someone who thoroughly enjoys his policy-heavy role as the chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.
    In the immediate aftermath of McCarthy's sudden decision earlier this month to drop out of the speaker race, Ryan appeared to be doing everything he could not to run. Moments after McCarthy dropped out during a meeting in the ornate Ways and Means Committee Room earlier this month, Ryan grabbed Rep. John Kline of Minnesota and told him to take the top job instead.
    "He spun around and almost choked me and said, 'Kline you gotta do this,'" Kline recalled Thursday. "I knew then, and I think Paul knew then, he really had to be the guy."
    Ryan knew his life would change moments before McCarthy made his bombshell announcement. He was slated to give the nominating speech to McCarthy in the conference, but instead got a heads-up that those remarks wouldn't be necessary. The majority leader instead urged Ryan to consider a bid.
    McCarthy knew Ryan was reluctant, but he immediately began to figure out what he could do to help, according to people familiar with the matter.
    There was discussion about divvying up responsibilities, but also about redefining the role of the speaker. Ryan envisioned being a more prominent face for the party -- someone willing to deliver the message in the media, and spreading out some of the fundraising and operational duties to other members of the leadership team.
    McCarthy served as a counselor to Ryan throughout the process. He had a partial playbook already in hand since he had previously met with House GOP members, especially the conservatives in the Freedom Caucus, and had a good read on their concerns about shifting to a more "bottom-up" process.
    And since Ryan didn't want the job, many conservatives in the caucus seemed to believe him that he wouldn't try to make the speakership more powerful. Conservatives had long complained too much power resided in the leadership office, and it would be a non-starter for a candidate who wanted to centralize more power. It remains, of course, to be seen how Ryan operates over the long-term.
    "My question is who in their right mind would ever want that job?" said Rep. Barry Loudermilk, R-Georgia, a member of the Freedom Caucus. "We can't survive another eight years like the ones we just had. We won't recover from that. He's willing to put his own self on the line."
    After the Freedom Caucus voted Wednesday to support Ryan, but not officially endorse him -- which was one of his preconditions for taking the job -- there was little option for Ryan to walk away. While they left themselves some room to say they still had issues with Ryan's conditions, they were also aware in their internal discussions that if they blocked yet another candidate - and one who had majority support - they would be overplaying their hand.
    Asked why he was confident Ryan would be elected speaker next week, McCarthy told reporters flatly, "when I ran, 80% of the Freedom Caucus was against me. Now they're not."

    Changing the rules to vacate the chair?

    Ryan's problems, however, are bound to grow with the right as soon as he takes the gavel -- namely on two matters: Fiscal issues and his desire to make it harder to overthrow a sitting speaker.
    On the latter, there's no agreement between him and the Freedom Caucus. But he clarified his demand by saying he only wants to "change" the rule -- not eliminate it. And he agreed to consider the matter later as part of other rules changes the caucus has sought to enact in order to give the rank-and-file a bigger say.
    "We are not changing this fundamental right that members have relative to the 'motion to vacate,'" Jordan told CNN. "We're not for that. We made that very clear."
    Ryan was not pressed on many policy matters, but will have to weigh in on the contentious issue of raising the national debt ceiling as early as next week -- and extending government funding past Dec. 11. But he promised that immigration reform, an idea he has been warm to in the past, would not be a measure he would pursue in a Ryan speakership.
    As he continued to dither about taking the speakership, Republicans began looking for alternatives -- and a growing number looked at Kline, a back-slapping pol who likes to smoke cigars.
    Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., liked the idea.
    "I'd be able to drink and smoke in the speaker's office for another year," Cole said, referring to Boehner's penchant for puffing cigarettes.
    After next Thursday, he will likely have to ask Paul Ryan.