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Over 70% of the House Freedom Caucus voted to support Ryan

Washington CNN  — 

Rep. Paul Ryan is pushing ahead with his – now likely successful – bid to be the next House speaker.

In a closed-door session, more than 70% of the House Freedom Caucus voted in favor of Ryan’s candidacy. But that is short of the 80% needed for an official endorsement, something Ryan has demanded.

It appears to be close enough for Ryan, and now he is just waiting for two other key House GOP caucuses to make their support known before he officially jumps in.

“I’m grateful for the support of a supermajority of the House Freedom Caucus,” Ryan said in a statement he tweeted out Wednesday night. “I look forward to hearing from the other two caucuses by the end of the week, but I believe this is a positive step toward a unified Republican team.”

Ryan has said all along he wants to be the “unity” candidate for House speaker. He met Wednesday with the Freedom Caucus – the group of roughly 40 conservatives who were instrumental in driving out Speaker John Boehner and throwing the leadership race into disarray.

Ryan told them in private what he’s been telling everyone in public: he wasn’t going to beg for their vote. Ryan wants to be the consensus pick to be speaker, and if the Freedom Caucus wants to get in his way, he’ll let them.

“If I can be a unifying figure in our conference, I’m willing to step up and do that, it’s just that simple,” Ryan told reporters upon leaving the Capitol. “If not then it’s OK, I’ll go back to Ways and Means.”

Freedom Caucus members said it’s all up to Ryan.

“Paul appears to have sufficient support to become the next speaker of the House,” said Rep. Justin Amash, R-Michigan.

“Even if there is a minority of House Freedom Caucus members who don’t support his bid, he’ll have to make the decision on how he proceeds,” Amash said.

Ryan’s spokesman reiterated Wednesday afternoon that he would need an endorsement from the three major caucuses in the conference, including the Freedom Caucus, to run. But that was before the Freedom Caucus made its announcement.

Behind the scenes, Ryan has been seeking to win over individual members of the Freedom Caucus – and making inroads with other conservative factions – in what his allies privately describe as an effort to keep the discord over his speakership to a small number of agitators, effectively isolating that faction and weakening their strength in the conference.

“He’s talking to them, working and listening to them, like he does … as he runs his committee, and I think he’s got to go make the case,” Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, said when asked about Ryan’s strategy.

But Ryan has gone beyond that.

Publicly and privately, Ryan has been making the pitch: He wants to limit – not eliminate – the ability of lawmakers to overthrow a speaker, a tactic used by the party’s right wing. In a nod to the right, he’s signaled he’s willing to change party procedures to help bring more lawmakers into the fold, but he has said he wouldn’t do it at the behest of any individual group.

The Freedom Caucus said Wednesday it was agnostic on Ryan’s pre-conditions – but that could be worked out.

“While no consensus exists among members of the House Freedom Caucus regarding Chairman Ryan’s preconditions for serving, we believe that these issues can be resolved within our Conference in due time,” said a statement issued on behalf of the caucus.

Ryan also gave members some assurances on immigration, an issue on which he has drawn some criticism for from right-wingers. “There would be no immigration bill forthcoming that did not go beyond border security or internal security or was approved in substance and form by a majority of majority,” Brooks said.

Brooks said that Ryan didn’t come into the caucus meeting begging for members’ approval.

“The impression I got in speaking to Paul Ryan is he would be somewhat thankful if he did not have to be speaker of the House,” said Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, who was in the room. “He was very candid in saying, ‘Look I’m very happy as chairman of Ways and Means. This is not really something I want to do. I will do it if I must.’”

Ryan continues to make clear he wants the support of the full GOP Conference – and an endorsement from the Freedom Caucus, which has previously backed Rep. Daniel Webster, a Florida Republican.

Amash said Wednesday the caucus didn’t formally rescind that endorsement – but is making its statement of supermajority support for Ryan at the same time.

Webster, a former Florida statehouse speaker, said he isn’t ready to drop out, telling CNN in an interview that he was “in the race early before Paul Ryan was in it” and that he was working to ensure he didn’t lose support from the Freedom Caucus.

“Well I would suspect that they will,” Webster said when asked about the caucus’ continued support for his candidacy. “But if they don’t, I got in before I had their support and I’m going to stay in no matter what support I have because I believe it’s a message that must be heard.”

While there are roughly 40 members of the Freedom Caucus (the group doesn’t publish a formal roster), its most influential lawmakers are seen in the Capitol as the most ardent foes of leadership. They include Reps. Jim Jordan of Ohio, Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, Raul Labrador of Idaho, Amash and Huelskamp.

Other conservatives, including Reps. Walter Jones of North Carolina and Thomas Massie of Kentucky, asserted Wednesday they would oppose Ryan and back Webster instead.

But Mick Mulvaney said Ryan should be speaker.

“I think he satisfied many of us that he was willing to change business as usual in D.C. … Out of all our folks in our conference, Paul has the credibility to change the place,” he said. Mulvaney added that while the caucus didn’t meet all Ryan’s conditions, the “the bottom line is if he wants to be speaker, he has the votes as of tonight.”

It was unclear how Ryan received the news of the Freedom Caucus support Wednesday night, although Amash suspected the group’s chairman, Jordan, would reach out.

Ryan’s spokesman did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday evening.