Budget hurdle cleared, Ryan reflects on transition to speakership

Story highlights

  • For Speaker Paul Ryan, the vote caps off the year with a major legislative victory
  • House Republicans say the Ryan era already feels different

Washington (CNN)This fall, the Republican Party was torn apart by House Speaker John Boehner's abrupt resignation. Questions swirled about who could tame the rambunctious House GOP conference and whether it was even capable of governing.

But a few weeks later, Congress wrapped up the year by easily passing a $1.8 trillion funding bill that avoids a shutdown and extends dozens of popular tax breaks, a big win for GOP lawmakers who leave Washington for the holidays feeling united and energized for 2016.
For Rep. Paul Ryan, who catapulted from committee chairman to speaker of the House in just seven weeks to replace Boehner, the vote capped off the year with a major legislative victory.
    Sitting in his Capitol office talking to reporters after the vote, the new speaker exuded an air of calm confidence, not seeming to be fazed by the whirlwind of the last few weeks.

    Recasting the speakership

    House Republicans say the Ryan era already feels different because he has taken on the role of national spokesman, and they feel he's done an effective job articulating the GOP agenda. Ryan, who rose to power as the party's "big ideas" guy, has been a constant presence on cable news and Sunday shows.
    "The members feel like they've got a lot more air cover to go and fight the battles that we're engaged in up here," Rep. Steve Scalise, the No. 3 House GOP leader, told CNN about Ryan.
    The 45-year-old Wisconsin representative is easygoing and seems to enjoy the messenger role. And multiple members say simply moving Boehner out of the role has alleviated some of the criticism they face when they go back home. Boehner was more selective about media appearances, but over time, because he had to compromise to avoid major crises, he became a toxic figure. He morphed into a symbol of the clash between establishment Republicans in the capital and the anti-Washington voters who are supporting the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.
    Unlike pre-Christmas sessions in recent years, there weren't the kinds of food fights that made people across the country toss up their hands about the dysfunction in Washington.
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    "This was a big page-turning exercise to get us on the right track to regular order next year," Ryan told reporters Friday.
    Much of the big fiscal package was prepped by Boehner, something Ryan reminded his own members and the media constantly in the days leading up to the vote.
    Even conservatives who opposed the deal told CNN they were willing to look past the megadeal now because it was leftover business, and Ryan showed signs he was serious about a promise to decentralize the speaker's role and allow members more of a say in big policy proposals.
    "At least there's a give and take," North Carolina GOP Rep. Mark Meadows told reporters. Meadows started the movement to oust Boehner and is a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. But he praised Ryan for opening lines of communication.
    Rep. Dave Brat, R-Virginia, another Freedom Caucus member, railed on the spending deal but told CNN he appreciated Ryan's recent invitation to have dinner with him and other conservatives.
    Ryan downplayed attacks that were already starting to come from conservative talk radio and other outside voices that he was Boehner 2.0 for trading offers with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in recent weeks to get the fiscal package done.
    "I come from the conservative movement, and the people who have been lifelong members of the conservative movement know me as one of their own," Ryan said.
    But some conservatives are wary of the deal Ryan cut and warned the honeymoon might not last.
    "You couldn't put together a better bill to alienate every core constituency of the party, which he just did," said Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp, another member of the House Freedom Caucus, who opposed the deal.

    2016 plans

    Ryan told reporters he would continue to decentralize power, effectively weakening the job of the speaker. "I still have a lot of culture to change," he said.
    He reported House Republicans were getting to work on an effort to draft a new "authorization for use of military force" to approve in the fight against ISIS, but he stopped short of saying the House would vote on it next year. He said he wasn't ready to prejudge what would emerge from "listening sessions" with members.
    A plan to replace Obamacare also could be unveiled in 2016, but Ryan cautioned he wasn't promising anything would pass because in divided government, "I can guarantee the effort, but I can't guarantee the outcome."
    Criminal justice reform was one area where both Ryan and President Barack Obama agreed Congress should be able to work together to get something significant done.
    But much of next year for Ryan will be about laying out a GOP platform as his party continues to churn through a divided and negative primary process to pick the 2016 presidential nominee. The speaker said the dynamic will shift once that sorts itself out, but he'll remain positive and concentrate on framing an agenda that contrasts how Republicans will lead the country.
    "I come from the happy warrior school of the conservative movement," he said.
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    Ryan predicted the GOP would maintain a firm hold on control of the House in the 2016 election, regardless of who wins the GOP presidential nomination.
    "Eight years of liberal progressive politics has produced miserable results and I really don't think the country is going to have more of the same and that is why I am confident we are going to keep our majority," Ryan said.
    Ryan said that while he would travel the country to help candidates, he stressed that he was more enthusiastic about the wonky work of putting together legislation than politicking, saying, "I put up with politics in order to do policy."

    Transitioning to speaker

    Ryan admitted he didn't know the top Democrats in Congress until he sat across from them at the negotiating table this month.
    "I talked to Harry Reid once in 2012 for 30 seconds before getting this job," Ryan said, adding he had never had a long conversation with Pelosi.
    The President called him right after the bill passed, and the two made plans to sit down in early January for their first meal together since Ryan became speaker.
    After taking a job he was reluctant to accept not long ago, Ryan seemed surprised at how much he was enjoying it and how easy the transition was. He cited his time as the GOP 2012 vice presidential nominee as a help in dealing with the high-profile nature of the post and told reporters, "I don't get rattled or fazed anymore."
    Being on the national stage taught Ryan how to unplug, which he said was something he had struggled with earlier in his political career.
    "My faith, my family and my hobbies help me do that," Ryan said.
    One hobby Ryan was looking forward to picking back up was deer hunting. He's only been able to kill one this season, but planned to use the holiday recess to bag at least another two or three so he could have time for his other hobby -- making sausage.
    Ryan's reviews for his first few weeks as speaker have been largely glowing, but some warn he needs to follow the lead of the voices urging the Republican Party to transform itself.
    "If he's tone deaf to the American people, we are in big trouble," Brat said, but added, "I like him personally. I wish him the best because the country is relying on us."