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Can Paul Ryan disarm the Freedom Caucus?

- October 26, 2015

Last week, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) reached detente with the House Freedom Caucus–the organized faction on the far right of the Republican Conference that had pushed Speaker John Boehner to resign and had derailed the ascent of the GOP majority leader in his stead. With a large majority of the Freedom Caucus now poised to vote for Ryan to be speaker, Ryan is all but certain to be elected with support from across the House GOP Conference.

Why did the Freedom Caucus loosen its grip on the speakership?  And with what potential consequence for a Ryan speakership? A few aspects of last week’s developments are worth a closer look.

1. The HFC decided to avoid blame.

First, the best reporting on the House Freedom Caucus (by Matt Fuller, then of CQ/Roll Call) made plain the central dynamic that led a large majority of the Freedom Caucus to step back from their procedural and policy demands as conditions for their votes for speaker: avoiding blame. As Fuller noted:

Part of the calculus in this strategy was that blocking Ryan would damage the Freedom Caucus. House Republicans in general, already tired of seeing their leaders derailed by the conservative group, would be outraged if 39 members stymied their dream speaker. Even within the House Freedom Caucus, there were several strong Ryan supporters who founders worried might leave the group over a thwarted Ryan speakership.

Given that the only leverage of the HFC lies in its ability to hold its nearly 40 members together, it makes sense that the HFC leadership would step back from the edge of the cliff when it became clear that opposition from the Caucus was the only thing standing in the way of Ryan’s willingness to serve as speaker. The threat of overreaching loomed large, putting the unity of the HFC at risk.

2. Ryan persuaded the Freedom Caucus that, yes, he will discuss changes in party rules.

Second, Ryan arguably made it easier for the HFC to back off its ransom demands by convincing HFC members that he agreed with members’ concerns about centralized power in the House and that he would consider a series of rule changes within the GOP party conference to address it.

Note that many of the changes that the HFC seeks are reforms of party, not chamber, rules. That distinction is important because GOP party conference rules require only a majority of the party for adoption – not a majority of the full chamber.

In other words, the influence of three dozen HFC members on the far right of a conservative conference is likely diluted within the conference setting where they can be easily outvoted by their colleagues. Such a venue would also facilitate adoption of party conditions for the filing of motions to remove the speaker–a key demand of Speaker Ryan.

That said, reports suggested last week that Ryan might be amenable to loosening the leadership’s grip on the legislative process. In that case, adjusting party rules to secure the support of the HFC might be a relatively cost-less concession for Ryan to make.

Moreover, shifting the target of procedural change from chamber to party rules serves the GOP leadership’s interests more broadly. Loosening leadership control by adjusting House rules (say, by lowering the threshold for the number of lawmakers required to discharge a bill) would empower both dissident lawmakers in the majority party as well as the entirety of the minority party. Keeping the contest targeted to party conference rules would expand rank-and-file participation, but without also expanding the parliamentary rights of the minority party.

3. Ryan faces the same challenge that Boehner did.

Third, some argue that Ryan is closer ideologically to the HFC than is either Boehner or McCarthy, thus making it easier for the HFC to accept Ryan and giving him a leg up as speaker. My hunch is that this argument slightly misses the mark. After all, the differences across the three (Boehner, Ryan, and McCarthy) are small relative to the ideological positions of HFC members; all three fall to the left of the heart of the HFC.

Moreover, Ryan – no matter how much more conservative he is than Boehner – will still face the same existential challenge: How can Ryan balance his conservative credentials with his responsibility to keep the government open and its debts paid?

4. Will Ryan’s conservative cred give Republicans the cover they need to take tough votes?

Finally, looking ahead to how Ryan will handle this conflict, some observers speculated last week that as speaker, Ryan is likely to side with the problem-solvers over the bomb throwers (even if he apparently already committed to the Hastert Rule, which conceptually stops him from bringing measures to the floor if they are opposed by a majority of the majority party).

As Philip Klein argued, Ryan has shown a “willingness to be a loyal soldier and go along with the party, which at times has forced him to compromise on conservative ideas.” Perhaps Ryan’s street-cred with his GOP colleagues as an “Atlas Shrugged”-toting conservative will enable him to bridge differences between the “governing” and bomb-throwing wings of his party.

Will Ryan’s stellar conservative credentials provide rank-and-file lawmakers with greater political cover to take tough votes than Boehner could ever provide for the middle of his conference? That’s the key question. Boehner’s problem was the “vote no, hope yes” faction that joined the far-right HFC in voting against bipartisan, must-pass compromises – which required the speaker to rely on Democratic votes nearly every time.

Will Ryan’s popularity and partisan stripes within the conference provide sufficient political cover to convert that faction into a “hope yes – vote yes” majority?  That might be a thin reed on which to lean over a longer period. But it would perhaps be sufficient to get the House through the minefields it faces this legislative season.