House Speaker Paul Ryan lost on Friday. He lost a high-profile vote on one of his “legacy” projects, the latest farm bill, which would have imposed additional work requirements on food stamp recipients. The decision to pursue those “welfare” cuts had lost him all Democratic and many moderate Republican votes from the outset. His lost authority on the issue of immigration, meanwhile, had led many of those same moderates—and a host of others—to circumvent him in an effort to force votes on immigration bills. The Freedom Caucus, which takes pride in its ability to procedurally out-crazy all other blocs, killed the farm bill after not getting its own, hard-line immigration demands to counter the moderates. With moderate and far-right Republicans opposing Ryan, the speaker stood in the back of the chamber when his farm bill went down on Friday, lost to himself.
Has Paul Ryan, in the month since his transition to lame-duck speaker, lost control of the House—or just control of an issue?
Ryan will relinquish his seat in Congress after the midterms, but a movement to take away his official control of the chamber sooner than that could be afoot. The Weekly Standard’s Haley Byrd reported Sunday that “top Republicans in Congress and the White House have in recent days entertained a plan to push House Speaker Paul Ryan out of his post over the summer, in an effort to clear the way for his presumed successor, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, to assume the speakership.” Byrd’s source claims to have discussed the idea with Trump, who sees “merit” in the idea, but hasn’t come down one way or another.
The plotters see two big benefits to the proposed coup, one worthy of consideration and another mostly just funny. Were McCarthy to ascend to the speakership (never a sure bet), they argue, it could bring some order to a divided, quasi-leaderless conference. Their other, funnier selling point is that a speakership vote on the House floor would force House Democrats to vote on Nancy Pelosi’s leadership, providing campaign trail fodder for the fall. Republican ad makers—who don’t need much to support their one campaign message, that Pelosi is bad—can probably make do with last January’s recorded vote of 189 Democrats supporting her for speaker. This alleged benefit of booting Ryan early is just an extra-thirsty, bonus rationale from someone who really, really wants Kevin McCarthy to become speaker this summer.
Byrd noticed that multiple stories have cited a “senior Republican source” pinning the farm bill’s failure on Ryan’s lame-duck status. “Obviously the House Freedom Caucus is to blame, but this is the problem when you have a lame duck speaker who announces he’s leaving eight months in advance,” the source told Politico. “He can make calls to members to urge them to vote for something, but who will care?”
With murmurs of a coup likely to pick up in the coming days, the argument that Ryan lost control over his caucus when he announced his retirement is worth scrutinizing.
When it comes to the Freedom Caucus, what control did he ever have? Was there ever a time that his dulcet tones over the phone held sway over Reps. Mark Meadows, Jim Jordan, or Justin Amash? That’s not the game the Freedom Caucus plays. They find leverage points and use them to negotiate the advancement of right-wing policy. In this case, the moderates’ move to force an immigration debate—which would likely produce a more generous DACA bill as the official position of the House—set off alarms with the Freedom Caucus, and its members took the nearest hostage. The tactic is well within the realm of “how they roll,” whether Ryan is planning to stay for six months or six decades. Ryan, like his predecessor John Boehner, has never had control of the Freedom Caucus, and it’s why the speaker’s job is a pain in the ass for whichever warm body has the misfortune of occupying it.
The moderates also have reasons for trying to force immigration votes that have little to do with the end of Ryan’s political career—namely, the continuation of their own. Two of the most visible ringleaders behind the push for the discharge petition, Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo and California Rep. Jeff Denham, are running in absolutely dire conditions; they would be more vulnerable had they not tried to spark some movement on dormant Dreamers legislation.
Believing that a lame-duck Speaker Ryan is the source of this recent House Republican disarray also means believing that installing Speaker McCarthy, or Speaker Scalise, or Speaker [ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ] this summer would fix these problems. That’s a joke. Kevin McCarthy cannot make Curbelo—who represents a South Florida, D+6 district that’s 70 percent Hispanic—find common cause on immigration policy or tactics with a hardliner like Mark Meadows. A new speaker would not make moderates’ reelection races easier and could even provide the face to run against that Democrats have been missing since Ryan bailed. The Freedom Caucus trusts McCarthy less than they trust Ryan, who at least has strongly held policy beliefs.
McCarthy is eager to move quickly because it could give his opponents less time to organize. But is he so sure he’s ready for what’s on the other side?