WASHINGTON ― House Speaker Paul Ryan’s re-election to his leadership post in January is fast turning into a potential showdown between establishment Republicans and conservatives looking to weaken the speaker and win changes to House rules.
Conservatives don’t have enough votes to oust Ryan (R-Wis.). But they say their coup movement shows his hold on the speakership is far more tenuous than he realizes. Denying Ryan re-election on the first ballot would undermine his political future and cast him as a conservative pariah, they say, and may give conservatives leverage to enact rules changes that would help them push their agenda for years.
“If he loses the speaker election, he’s not going to be president,” one conservative member told The Huffington Post on Monday.
Conservatives hold no illusion of preventing Ryan from remaining speaker (or, you know, becoming president), according to the eight Republicans HuffPost interviewed on Monday. That there is coup chatter at all, however, suggests Ryan’s relationship with conservatives is already fraying, less than a year into his speakership.
Even without a clear alternative candidate, one member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus said, Ryan may not have the votes he needs to win on the first ballot. Members of the Freedom Caucus, a group of roughly 40 hard-line conservatives, said that may give them a way to link the speaker election and the 115th Congress rules package.
“The only leverage any Republican member of the House has for getting rule changes is the speaker vote,” said one member of the caucus.
House Freedom Caucus members are discussing four major proposals, though the talks are in early stages and haven’t gained formal backing. Their ideas include increasing caucus representation on committees, bulking up subcommittee staff with hard-liners who could be groomed for election, allowing the GOP House campaign arm to collect contributions for the Freedom Caucus that could be directed to conservative candidates, and clarifying rules-suspension votes.
Ryan’s re-election as speaker could be greatly complicated if Republicans lose more than a dozen seats on Nov. 8. Republicans currently hold 247 seats in the House, with 218 votes needed to win the speakership (if every member votes).
One conservative noted that nine Republicans opposed Ryan’s election to speaker in October ― technically 10, if you count Rep. Daniel Webster (R-Fla.) abstaining ― and at least that many would be against him in January. Another conservative predicted more than 20 Republicans would disapprove of Ryan.
Of course, a lot could change before 2017. Members talk a big game in August. And all of those interviewed by HuffPost would only speak anonymously.
Much of the coup chatter may just be posturing for rules changes. The changes conservatives are eyeing include giving House Freedom Caucus members proportional representation on committees. So, if there were 40 Freedom Caucus members in a 240-Republican majority, caucus members would get one-sixth of the GOP seats on committees.
Another Freedom Caucus idea is to allow subcommittee chairs to pick the staff for their panels. The conservative goal is for subcommittee chairs to select hard-line Republican staff members who would create a bench of potential candidates for the future, in addition to giving the subcommittees more independence and power.
The House Freedom Caucus also wants the National Republican Campaign Committee to set up a separate account to accept Freedom Caucus donations. The caucus could direct those donations to candidates of its choosing. The Freedom Caucus also wants to end an informal requirement that GOP committee and subcommittee leaders contribute to the NRCC.
Finally, Freedom Caucus members want more transparency on bills brought to a vote under rules that are suspended. They want to know what rules are suspended, and who voted to suspend them.
These rules changes, on their face, all are long shots, according to a GOP leadership aide. But one conservative said his allies hope to be able to extract concessions by opposing Ryan.
“But they better get a better promise than Huelskamp got on committee assignments,” the member said, referring to conservative Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), who just lost his primary, in part, because of uncertainty over whether he would return to the Agriculture Committee.
Huelskamp’s primary loss in early August seems a major part of Ryan’s worsening relationship with conservatives. Freedom Caucus members said Ryan could have done more to prevent outside groups from spending millions to defeat one of their own.
One HFC member said Ryan came into the speakership promising to try to stop establishment GOP groups from going after conservatives.
“In a way, it’s only accelerated under Ryan,” the member said.
Another member, who downplayed the seriousness of Freedom Caucus coup discussions, nevertheless acknowledged that many conservatives were “extremely concerned” by the successful effort to defeat Huelskamp.
“If it’s addressed satisfactorily,” the member said, “it’ll calm any concerns. But it hasn’t been addressed since the Huelskamp loss.”
In fairness to Ryan, Congress has been on break since mid-July. And even if the House had been in session, it’s unclear what Ryan could have done. Telling outside groups not to oppose a member could be seen as illegal coordination with a PAC.
Conservatives, nevertheless, are looking for payback.
“How can you have a gang, and have one in your gang get stabbed, and do nothing?” another member asked. “You got to stab somebody, or else what’s the point of having a gang?”
As Congress works through spending decisions this fall, and an election that may be disastrous for Republicans, conservatives said other members may be more willing to go after Ryan in January.
One member suggested researching Robin Williams’ joke on a fictitious prescription drug the late comedian called “Fukitol.”
“After this Nov. 8, I think there’s a lot of members who will be taking Fukitol,” the member said.