Looming shutdown may end Paul Ryan's honeymoon with conservatives

Story highlights

  • Ryan's first week was productive, but he faces major fights over spending bill riders and the December 11 shutdown deadline
  • Established advisory group of members from the House Freedom Caucus, Tuesday Group and the Republican Study Committee

Washington (CNN)After the tumultuous few weeks that led up to Paul Ryan taking over as the new House speaker, his first week on the job was a honeymoon from the Republican infighting that sidelined his predecessor, John Boehner. It was productive too.

But there were signs already that the goodwill might not last long for the young speaker who faces many tough choices in the weeks ahead, including how far he is willing to push efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and other conservative priorities and risk a government shutdown.
Ryan shepherded a significant multi-year transportation bill through a rare process that included three days of debate and votes on dozens of amendments on the House floor. Members on both sides of the aisle praised their ability to weigh in on the long overdue bill, the first major rewrite of a highway and infrastructure construction bill in a decade.
    The speaker touted his "great week" in his first solo press conference at the Capitol on Thursday, pointing to the bipartisan transportation bill.
    "It cuts waste. It prioritizes good infrastructure. It will help create good-paying jobs. And it is the result of a more open process," Ryan said.
    Many of the conservatives who had ripped Boehner for crafting major policy proposals with little input from rank and file members, were happy they could weigh in on the highway bill. But the process they demanded from the new speaker yielded a final product that violated a key test for conservatives -- the legislation authorized six years of construction projects but only had money to pay for the first three years.
    But they gave Ryan a free pass because he gave them one thing they say Boehner never did -- a chance to have their say.
    "If it were John Boehner, we'd have two or three amendments and move on. He'd call K Street and ask, 'What do you want us to offer in order to make it happen,' so at least there is a sense there's not a fix that's in on this," Rep Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, a leader of the House Freedom Caucus who voted against the bill, told CNN.
    Ryan's November 1 round of interviews on all five Sunday talk shows was a deliberate effort to set himself apart from Boehner, who was more selective about media appearances. At the weekly closed door meeting with all House Republicans, Ryan's disciplined message earned him a round of applause and praise for his role as an effective point person to promote a conservative agenda.
    But even Ryan admitted his honeymoon wasn't likely to last and warned his "bottom up" approach may not always play out the way members from his own party want.
    "Bills will come up that may not pass," Ryan told reporters on Thursday.

    Shutdown deadline coming up

    But one must-pass bill that Ryan knows could determine whether House Republicans stick with him is the government funding bill that needs President Barack Obama's signature by December 11 or it will trigger a government shutdown.
    Asked early in the week whether he would press so-called "policy riders" to the spending bill that would condition the money -- perhaps to defund Planned Parenthood or rein in the EPA -- Ryan suggested he wouldn't back down from the fight, noting Congress is the institution that holds the power of the purse and "we fully expect that we are going to exercise that power."
    Because the spending fight is a tough line to walk due to the warring factions inside the GOP conference demanding different things, Ryan put together an advisory group of key leaders representing the different ideological viewpoints. Representatives of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of roughly 40 members on the right who were Boehner's toughest critics, will join members of the moderate Tuesday Group, and the Republican Study Committee, another large group of conservatives for weekly sessions to discuss policy ideas.
    Ryan is trying to take a hands-off approach on the spending bill, saying leaders of the House Appropriations Committee will write the legislation and hold "executive sessions" with members who want to weigh in with their own proposals.
    At his press conference later in the week, the speaker was not as forceful on whether he would try to push policy fights on the spending bill - a move Democrats and the White House warned would trigger a confrontation.
    "I'm not going to pre-determine the outcome of negotiations that have not even taken place yet," Ryan said. He also pointed out that Congress was separately moving a budget process -- known as "reconciliation" -- that stripped federal money for the group, and that path was a better bet to get a bill to the President's desk.
    But as Ryan tries to avoid saying specifically what House Republicans will do on the spending bill, Senate Democrats are insisting that the appropriations bills all be lumped together in a massive omnibus measure. That means party leaders like Ryan will have to get personally involved to hash out a compromise behind the scenes and push it through both chambers. That tactic could infuriate the right of Ryan's conference, but Democrats say it's the only way to go.
    Sen. Chuck Schumer says Democrats were holding up a spending bill for the Pentagon as a negotiating chip so Republican leaders would relent on demands to block funding for Planned Parenthood, Dodd-Frank financial regulations, environmental rules and other controversial matters.
    "If you let one piece go, particularly the piece that brings most of the Republicans on, it increases the chance of shutting down the government and having to use poison pill riders," Schumer said.
    But if Ryan cuts a deal with Schumer and other top Democrats, he could prompt the same type of revolt that dogged Boehner's speakership.

    How much room will conservatives give Ryan?

    For now, many on the right are willing to give Ryan time -- but not too much time.
    "We think he is going to want input from members of the Freedom Caucus as well as input from everyone else in the conference," said Rep. Jim Jordan, chairman of the Freedom Caucus, when asked about the budget fight. "That's how it's supposed to work, he's committed to do that."
    Jordan is already pushing Ryan to fight with the Obama administration on those controversial policy riders. In an interview with USA Today's video series, the Ohio Republican said, "I think there's going to be a real debate, and there should be, and probably a real fight" pointing to policy provisions on health care, immigration and regulations as possible flashpoints.
    Rep. Tom Reed, R-New York, said that Congress needs to set the priorities in the next round of budget talks. But he acknowledged that Ryan has a fine line to balance.
    "This is about the power of the purse, and I think there needs to be a recognition that in our Constitution the power of the purse rests in Congress and us being able to influence where that money is spent," Reed said. "I think it is prudent and reasonable and just so long as we don't overreach and don't become extreme, I think there is a path there to come to a conclusion that everyone can agree to."
    Ryan, who continues to sleep in his office in Washington and keep up his routine of early morning workouts at the House gym, also spent much of the week meeting with House Republicans to discuss possible rule changes for how the House operates and the party doles out key committee posts.
    The speaker hasn't received an invite meet with the president yet, or sat down with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. But Ryan did reach out to his opponent in the speaker's race: Daniel Webster of Florida. On the phone and on the floor, Ryan made that appeal to his former rival.
    "He said, 'Look I'd like your help,' and I said I'd give it to him," Webster said.