WASHINGTON – House Speaker Paul Ryan had a good run in his first few weeks on the job, clearing out several high-profile bills in a year-end rush. The good times may not last.
Ryan is already lowering expectations of major legislative achievements in 2016, saying he wants to focus on spelling out a conservative agenda. Far-right Republicans say they want more — and that they’ll push Ryan for votes on their top priorities, such as making significant tax changes, reining in entitlement programs and enacting a new health care law.
That tension — between Ryan’s push to set out broad principles and the Freedom Caucus’ impatience to force higher-profile confrontations — could intensify this week as House Republicans go to Baltimore to sort out their agenda.
If the three dozen members of the conservative Freedom Caucus don’t like the outcome, they say they are prepared to push him just as hard as they pushed Ryan’s predecessor, John Boehner, who quit.
“I don’t think you’re going to see Freedom Caucus members just roll over and play dead,” said caucus member Rep. Matt Salmon of Arizona.
The Republican policy retreat will last through Friday. Republican senators will be also on hand. Ahead of the meeting, conservatives tried to set a new, firmer tone.
Salmon said the Wisconsin Republican was given a pass by conservatives in his first weeks after becoming speaker on Oct. 29 because he was handling Boehner’s leftovers. That included passage of a $1.1 trillion spending bill in December with mostly Democratic votes.
“That’s gone, starting this year,” said Salmon of such patience with Ryan.
Another Freedom Caucus member, Raul Labrador of Idaho, raised eyebrows last week when he declared “the honeymoon is over” for Ryan as the House speaker.
Labrador said that he wants to see actual legislation put up for House votes this year, ticking off such aims as entitlement reform and a tax overhaul.
But Ryan so far has stopped short of specific promises. On the Senate side, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky already has been playing down the prospect of tax changes in 2016.
Ryan said that the House will pass a budget plan, but he hedged on whether there will be votes on entitlement revisions or deeper spending cuts.
Ryan is trying to position Republicans to compete more effectively in the 2016 general election by developing a “bold progrowth agenda” without having to actually take too many votes on it.
What gives the Freedom Caucus leverage is that Republicans control the chamber with 246 seats to 188 for Democrats — meaning their votes can be crucial to passage on issues dividing the parties.