POLITICS
02/03/2016 11:30 am ET Updated Feb 04, 2016

Paul Ryan to Heritage Action: Can You Not?

The speaker is trying to bring the gadfly conservative group back into the fold.

Mark Wilson via Getty Images
Speaker Paul Ryan came before a Heritage Action conference and said Republicans shouldn't argue over tactics.

In a speech meant to unite a sometimes-meddlesome wing of the Republican Party, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) came to the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday morning to tell the conservative group it was time to put down their scorecards and coalesce behind a common vision.

“To quote William Wallace in 'Braveheart,' we have to unite the clans,” Ryan said.

While Ryan’s campy reference got polite laughs and plenty of ink even before he gave the speech, his task is not that far off.

Conservative groups were a constant headache for former Speaker John Boehner, whose appearance at a Heritage Action conference would have been almost shocking. For Ryan, however, it was just another extension of his overarching strategy to bring his foes in and try to soften them from the inside. (Ryan was meeting with House Freedom Caucus members until nearly 11 p.m. Tuesday, trying to get them to back the Republican budget.)

But Ryan wasn’t completely deferential to Heritage Action, the hectoring political arm of the Heritage Foundation, which keeps track of how often a member of Congress votes with the conservative group through a scorecard. He used the speech as an opportunity to try to temper the group’s sometimes-unruly strategies and lofty expectations.

“What I want to say to you today is this: Don’t take the bait. Let’s not fight over tactics. And don’t impugn people’s motives,” Ryan said. “It’s fine if you disagree. And there’s a lot that’s rotten in Washington -- there’s no doubt about that -- but we can’t let how someone votes on an amendment to an appropriations bill define what it means to be a conservative.”

The Heritage Action scorecards have become a proxy test of conservatism in recent years, and many Republican members worry which way -- or whether -- Heritage will score a particular vote.

Ryan, who called himself a “Jack Kemp, Ronald Reagan conservative,” said the GOP movement could no longer demand things that are unrealistic, specifically name-checking a repeal of Obamacare while President Barack Obama was still in office. “All it does is depress our base and in turn help Democrats stay in the White House,” he said. “We can’t do that anymore. It won’t work.”

The Wisconsin Republican suggested that establishing those sorts of expectations were setting the GOP up for failure, whereas he wants to exceed expectations and help Republicans be successful.

Ryan’s plan to achieve that success is to unite the GOP behind a common vision. He went on to once again lay out his five-point agenda: national security; jobs and economic growth; health care and entitlement reform; poverty and opportunity; and restoring the Constitution.

(Ryan said that last piece was “so critical to all the others,” as the conservative Heritage crowd nodded their heads and greeted the platitude with plenty of mmm’s.)

During a brief question-and-answer period, Ryan called Obamacare “nothing more than basically a proxy and a plan to get to government-run health care,” and he said Republicans have to show voters -- “We owe you!” -- an Obamacare replacement. It’s been an open question whether Republicans would actually produce a health care replacement bill -- one that could be scored by the Congressional Budget Office and voted on by vulnerable Republicans in Congress -- and Ryan has been cagey on those details.

An audience member also asked Ryan what his deadline was for passing appropriations bills, and whether he would replace any chairman who didn’t meet that deadline, a question that was met with laughter and applause. Once everyone calmed down, Ryan said the actual deadline is Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, but he wanted to get them done before July.

Again, though, if Republicans can’t adopt a budget, they might find themselves doing zero appropriations bills. And then Republicans might be asking themselves who set the unrealistic expectations.

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