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Why Retirement Is Such a Delicate Issue for Paul Ryan

Who, me? Retire? What?
Who, me? Retire? What?
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

House Speaker Paul Ryan “has made it known to some of his closest confidants that this will be his final term as speaker,” according to a lengthy Politico story by reporters Tim Alberta and Rachael Bade that was published today. In interviews with “three dozen people who know the speaker,” Politico writes, “not a single person believed Ryan will stay in Congress past 2018.” This follows up a story from Wednesday night, from the Huffington Post’s Matt Fuller, about the frenzy of speculation and jockeying for position among Republicans anticipating such a change in the House Republican leadership.

These are among the most well-sourced reporters covering House Republicans, and the speculation is serious enough that would-be heirs like Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise are hastily putting together their succession strategies.

Ryan’s team, meanwhile, is pushing back against such talk. “This is pure speculation,” a Ryan spokeswoman, AshLee Strong, tweeted Thursday. “As speaker himself said today, he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.” Ryan reportedly told President Trump the same thing Thursday afternoon after Trump saw Politico’s story.

If Ryan is planning to retire next year, having achieved as many of his long-sought agenda items as he ever could, it wouldn’t do him much good to lend any credence to such rumors now. It would crater both fundraising and recruitment for House Republicans if it was known that the speaker himself is preparing to abandon ship.

The other problem, though, is that if Ryan is presumed to be departing at the end of this term, he could find himself pushed out sooner.

Conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus have little use for a lame-duck speaker. Their principal leverage over the speaker is a threat to push him out—by introducing a motion to vacate the chair, which would force a vote on the speakership. This is how they ensure the speaker doesn’t brings bills to the floor that would pass the House with mostly Democratic support—such as, say, a spending bill with a DACA fix attached—against conservatives’ wishes. Conservatives fear, reasonably enough, that if Ryan were planning to retire, he would execute a “barn cleaning” where he moved all sorts of legislation anathema to the right flank, much as Speaker John Boehner did in his final weeks before stepping down in 2015. The more credible the talk that Ryan plans on retiring at the end of the year, the more likely that Ryan doesn’t make it past next month—and then he wouldn’t get to spend 2018 achieving that other life-long goal of his, entitlement and welfare reform.

Keeping up the impression that he wants to stick around indefinitely would seem to compel him to run for re-election in 2018. And then, the day after his re-election, he can announce that he will leave Congress, after all, and bequeath the House Republican leadership to someone else.

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