Can Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell work together?

Story highlights

  • By all accounts, House Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell have a professional and cordial relationship.
  • House Republicans continue to be unhappy with the way filibusters can block action in the Senate

Washington (CNN)Rep. Paul Ryan just wouldn't take Mitch McConnell's "no" for an answer.

For weeks this summer, Ryan, the chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, insisted on tying a highway bill to a sweeping overhaul of the international tax code, an idea that McConnell strongly opposed. Over at least six phone conversations and meetings, McConnell urged Ryan to drop the idea and pursue a different course -- but Ryan wouldn't, according to five Republicans with direct knowledge of their talks.
McConnell made the case in a tense private meeting right before the August recess. Tax reform couldn't pass with Barack Obama in the White House, McConnell said. Ryan wouldn't listen. McConnell said the higher revenues shouldn't be used to pay for replenishing the highway trust fund. Ryan pushed back.
    The disagreement lingered into September, when McConnell and Ryan debated their preferred strategies at a private meeting, according to an attendee.
    The episode cast a light on the working relationship of two men who will have the power to drive the GOP agenda heading into the critical 2016 elections. But no matter how chummy the two men are -- or aren't -- they both are hemmed in by the differences in which the House and Senate operate.
    The veteran tactician, Senate Majority Leader McConnell, has to contend with the daily realities of life in the Senate, where he lacks the votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster, a fact of life that frustrates House conservatives.
    Ryan, the new House speaker and a long-time policy visionary for his party who will have to manage the expectations of a caucus hungry for results and eager to take the fight to the White House -- and the Senate, too. How closely they work together could be both a boon and a pitfall for Ryan, who is now leading a caucus that has grown increasingly hostile to McConnell and Senate Republicans.
    "I think you have to have a line of communication with McConnell, but I think you have to be firm," Texas Rep. Roger Williams, a two-term Republican, said of Ryan.
    By all accounts, Ryan and McConnell have a professional and cordial relationship. McConnell planned to attend Ryan's reception Thursday night at the Library of Congress. Ryan has privately told his colleagues he's known McConnell just as long as John Boehner has and they have an honest relationship, even when they disagree.
    And as Ryan was deliberating whether to run for speaker, McConnell privately called the Wisconsin Republican, saying that life often offers unexpected opportunities and that he should seize this one, people familiar with the matter said. The 73-year-old McConnell told the 45-year-old Ryan -- unlike anyone else -- he would have the freedom to push on the policy issues partly because his caucus would give him a honeymoon period to do just that.
    For Ryan and McConnell, the question is how long that honeymoon will last.
    "As Paul said to me, 'I've known Mitch a long time -- same is true of John Boehner.' This is not two people who don't know one another," said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio. "I think it's an opportunity to refresh the relationship between the two bodies."

    Ryan faces GOP anger over Senate filibuster

    House and Senate Republicans on both ends of the Capitol have repeatedly misfired during the 114th Congress, despite pledging at a retreat in Pennsylvania at the beginning of the year that they would bolster their coordination. On issues ranging over funding for the Homeland Security Department to government surveillance, it's been one constant battle after another -- and House Republicans don't think Senate Republicans have done enough to advance the conservative cause.
    "I would like to get the Senate off this wait, hold-and-see -- let's see who the new president is before we do anything," said Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Florida. "People in the Senate seem to be OK with that more than the people here. They can be very frustrating over there."
    Fairly nor not, the anger from House conservatives over Senate process can often find its way to the speaker's chair.
    If the House passes bills that merely stall in the Senate, and then Ryan has to cut deals with McConnell, the new speaker could face the same type of backlash from many House Republicans frustrated that their conference is getting steamrolled by GOP senators all-too-willing to compromise.
    And if the House and Senate can't get on the same page, the GOP could look like it is in disarray headed into the 2016 elections.
    A number of House conservatives already are urging Ryan to push McConnell to unilaterally change Senate filibuster rules, something McConnell has refused to do.
    "What we do have to do is to get this boot off of the neck off of the Constitution and this crushing stalemate that is doing this country so much damage," said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Arizona, as he called on Ryan to push McConnell to gut the Senate's filibuster rules.
    Senate Republicans view their counterparts across the Capitol as naïve -- unaware of the procedures in their chamber that require the body to build consensus around legislation. Changing filibuster rules would fundamentally change their body into one that looks like the majority-rules House, a move many senators believe would destroy an institution designed to foster consensus.
    "I think it's wishful thinking," said Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, a friend of Boehner's from his time serving in the House. "Most of us have served over there so we understand the frustration. But we also recognize when we save them from themselves -- and the importance of that."
    Republicans hope that Ryan -- with experience he's gleaned in his nearly 17 years as a House member and as a staffer two decades ago for former Sen. Bob Kasten, R-Wisconsin -- fully understands the limits of what the Senate can do.
    "I think Ryan gets and understands the Senate, what the limitations are here and will do a good job explaining that to his colleagues in the House," said Sen. John Thune, No. 3 in Senate GOP leadership.
    Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-California, the House majority leader, said in an interview that he believes Ryan will benefit from his experience in working with senators -- particularly the 2013 deal he cut with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, a member of Senate Democratic leadership.
    "He's worked with them -- and on both sides of the aisle," said McCarthy, a close personal friend of Ryan's. "And just the way Paul carries himself -- it's not on the political nature, it's on the policy nature. And I think that gets a lot of people's respect. He can go into any facet of any philosophical belief over there -- and have the credibility."
    What could help Ryan is the hiring of key staff who have long-held relationships on the Senate side - notably Dave Hoppe, a long-time former Hill aide now serving as the new speaker's chief of staff.
    Mitch McConell

    McConnell-Ryan 2.0

    Still, Ryan -- as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and previously the Budget Committee -- has at times rubbed some of his Senate colleagues the wrong way by pushing big grand policy ideas that have no chance of passing a body that requires both parties to agree to do just about anything.
    He has had his differences in strategy with Senate Republicans, including Finance Committee Orrin Hatch, over how to move trade legislation and an Obamacare repeal through the reconciliation process, according to senators and aides familiar with the matter.
    "He's going to have to learn how to deal with senators," said one senior Republican source who asked not to be named, referring to Ryan.
    A Ryan spokesman declined to comment, but Don Stewart, a spokesman for McConnell, said that Ryan and his boss have built a productive relationship, pointing to the passage of Trade Promotion Authority earlier this year and potentially a highway bill later this year. McConnell praised Ryan on the floor Thursday as well.
    "Sen. McConnell and Chairman Ryan have a strong working relationship going back years," Stewart said. "And it includes significant accomplishments like TPA and the soon-to-be-completed multi-year highway bill."

    Early face-off: How to pay for highway bill

    As he's campaigned for the speakership, Ryan has told his colleagues he wants to pursue major initiatives -- including his long-sought goal of rewriting the tax code, an idea he highlighted in his inaugural speech Thursday. But McConnell, publicly and privately, has flatly said GOP goals on lowering rates and overhauling the sprawling tax code would never happen in Obama's remaining months in office.
    Indeed, Ryan's push this Congress to use a rewrite of the international tax code to pay for a highway bill is one that senators and aides said perplexed McConnell and a number of his like-minded allies.
    "To get the highway bill paid for, it would be something that could not be done in this short time frame," said Hatch, who added he'd work with Ryan next year on an international tax reform bill.
    At issue was the highway trust fund, which regularly ran out of money but kept solvent through a series of short-term patches approved by Congress. The trust fund was depleted because it relied as its main source of revenue an 18.4 cents per gallon federal gas tax, a rate that hadn't been raised since 1993.
    Both McConnell and Ryan wanted to reauthorize the highway trust fund for six years but they had very different visions to offset the costs. Ryan wanted to overhaul taxes on the profits American companies earn overseas and use the windfall to "unlock a solution to our highway trust fund shortfall," he said in July.
    But McConnell opposed using the international tax overhaul to pay for highway projects. He wanted it included in a broader rewrite of the U.S. tax code and argued there wasn't time to reach an agreement on such complex tax legislation before the highway trust fund ran dry again. Instead, McConnell proposed a series of offsets for the Senate highway bill, including sale of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, improving tax compliance, and reducing dividend payments the Federal Reserve makes to member banks. House Republicans scoffed at that idea.
    "We all want the House to have the space it needs to develop its own bill, because we all want to work out the best possible legislation for the American people in conference," McConnell said.
    But this week, the House cleared a short-term increase of the highway trust fund until Nov. 20 -- meaning McConnell and Ryan will need to immediately sort out a way forward, one of their first debates of their time together atop Capitol Hill.
    If the House and Senate eventually agree in conference on a unified long-term bill, as McConnell aides say they are close to doing, it would be a big win for both leaders.
    But if the two cut a big deal and Ryan's House conservatives feel left out, the Wisconsin Republican could suffer the same type of revolt that badly damaged Boehner in his first few weeks in office.
    "I think the process is a big problem," said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-South Carolina, a member of the House Freedom Caucus. "I think the process is a big reason why John Boehner is not speaker anymore."