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Ryan on the ropes as unruly republicans in near rebellion

Since the speaker announced his intention not to serve again, he's been struggling to stave off a leadership bid

Republican Speaker of the House from Wisconsin Paul Ryan speaks at a press briefing in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, USA 17 May 2018. Ryan spoke about immigration and DACA, expressing surprise that the Senate failed to pass an immigration bill. EPA/JIM LO SCALZO
Republican Speaker of the House from Wisconsin Paul Ryan speaks at a press briefing in the US Capitol in Washington, DC, USA 17 May 2018. Ryan spoke about immigration and DACA, expressing surprise that the Senate failed to pass an immigration bill. EPA/JIM LO SCALZO

Seven months before his planned retirement, House Speaker Paul Ryan is facing growing disruption among the GOP ranks, raising fresh questions about his ability to lead a divided group of Republicans through a tough election season.

Ryan sought to quell infighting on Tuesday, dashing back to Washington from Wisconsin and abandoning plans for family time at home, as he tried to unify the factions and reassert control over the majority.

In remarks to reporters, the speaker acknowledged restlessness among Republican lawmakers and argued an internal election to replace him at the helm would be a distraction. For now, he told reporters, "We all agree the best thing for us is to complete our agenda and not wedge into the middle of the completion of our agenda a divisive leadership election."

Ryan's job leading the rambunctious House Republicans has never been easy, but it has become more difficult since he turned himself into a lame-duck speaker by announcing he won't seek re-election to Congress in the fall. The move immediately prompted questions about whether his status would undermine his efforts to set a legislative agenda and jeopardize Republican hopes of holding on the House majority in November's midterm elections. Those questions intensified in recent days after Ryan tried and failed to pass a farm bill — a casualty of an unrelated immigration standoff.

Over the weekend, a top Cabinet official mused openly about replacing Ryan. Republicans are publicly at odds, blaming one another for squandering the waning time before the elections.

It's not at all clear how much longer Ryan will be able to stick around as planned, despite his ability to raise large sums for Republican re-election campaigns.

Behind closed doors at Tuesday's meeting, the speaker made a plea for GOP unity, expressed his own frustrations over their divisions and encouraged Republicans to work together to rack up legislative accomplishments, according to lawmakers at the meeting who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the private talks.

Ryan received a standing ovation, according to one person who attended.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said Republicans don't want Ryan to leave, but they want him to lead. "Nobody I know is pressuring Paul Ryan to step aside. We just want results," Barton said.

Barton said that with the largest House majority in almost a century, Republicans have their best chance before the midterms, when their numbers are likely to shrink. "If we really want to accomplish things there is no better time than right now," he said.

The latest dustup is a familiar one, pitting the conservative House Freedom Caucus against more moderate Republicans over what to do on immigration.

But for some lawmakers, the details hardly matter anymore. They are expressing their own sense of rebellion fatigue, tired of the almost unending churn of leadership power struggles and factional infighting that have become the norm among the House GOP.

Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., who is retiring rather than seeking re-election in fall, said it makes sense to revisit the leadership issue after "things blow up" as they did Friday over the immigration dispute. "But things blow up every couple of weeks around here."

The Republican next in line for Ryan's job, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has not yet secured the votes needed to become leader, Republicans say, ensuring a messy battle if early elections were held now.

Rank-and-file lawmakers say they have no interest in facing two rounds of leadership elections — one now and another after the midterm election — with each race giving the GOP factions another opportunity to extract demands before giving their support.

"You want to do it twice?" asked Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif.

For now, the choices ahead for Ryan are fraught with problems as he tries to resolve the standoff over immigration, an issue that has long divided Republicans.

On the one side are moderate Republicans who are close to having the signatures necessary to force a vote on their bill to provide a citizenship path for "Dreamers" — young immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children.

On the other is the Freedom Caucus, which will reject any bill they perceive as amnesty for immigrants here illegally.

Ryan could simply allow the "Dreamer" bill to proceed. It would probably pass the House with support from most Democrats and some centrist Republicans.

But in doing so, he would violate a promise made to the Freedom Caucus when he was first securing their votes to become speaker. Then, he said he would not bring forward immigration legislation unless it had support from most members in the GOP majority. The Freedom Caucus could threaten a procedural move to oust Ryan — as it did his predecessor, John Boehner — though it's unclear such threats matter to Ryan at this point.

Updated: May 23, 2018 07:35 PM