National Security & Defense

Can Paul Ryan Maintain a Unified House GOP?

House speaker Paul Ryan, November 19, 2015. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

On Wednesday evening, under the fractured light of three chandeliers in a meeting of the House Rules Committee, Representatives Alcee Hastings (D., Fla.) and Doug Collins (R., Ga.) began to shout.

“We’re making a hurry out of something there really is no hurry about!” Hastings said. “Mr. Collins, you sound like someone who wants boots on the ground.”

“Let’s have it! Let’s do it! As someone who’s been in Iraq, let’s do it!” Collins shot back. “I’m sick of this president’s lame excuses that [ISIS] is looking for more propaganda — they want to kill us! They don’t like us!”

Rules Committee chairman Pete Sessions (R., Texas) cracked his gavel, tempering one of many cross-party spats that evening over a bill, marshaled by GOP leadership in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, which would tighten background checks on Syrian refugees entering the U.S. The scene underscored the galvanizing effect the attacks have had on House Republicans. Since Friday’s bloodshed, the lower chamber has settled into an almost forgotten order: Republicans taking on Democrats, rather than members of their own party. Even the conference’s most conservative representatives, whose distaste for John Boehner’s heavy-handed tactics and closed-door maneuvering has so fractured the conference in recent years, ultimately coalesced behind the bill, despite voicing concerns that its language wasn’t tough enough.

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The conference’s newfound unity could be a testament to early trust in Paul Ryan’s leadership, which has thus far assuaged conservatives’ concerns about unbridled establishment power. But such national-security measures tend to receive universal Republican backing even in the absence of an event such as the Paris attacks, which for Ryan raises the uncomfortable possibility that he may not enjoy his conference’s unqualified support indefinitely.

At the same time, if ISIS continues to menace the globe and threaten attacks on the U.S., as appears likely, it could solidify the House GOP’s unified resolve.

“Paris was a wake-up call for Republicans,” says House Freedom Caucus member Brian Babin (R., Texas).

The lower chamber has settled into an almost forgotten order: Republicans taking on Democrats, rather than members of their own party.

The Syrian refugee bill — called the American Security Against Foreign Enemies (SAFE) Act — came together like so many pieces of legislation do in this conference: Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) made some phone calls. Not 24 hours after the attacks, McCarthy began dialing committee chairmen to discuss the options that the leadership could present members upon their return to Capitol Hill on Monday. He phoned Ryan’s team as well, already working to plot the speaker’s own path forward, which would include hyping the signing of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), his first major legislative signature as speaker.

The result was a GOP conference meeting early Monday morning, in which Ryan made his position clear: No Syrian refugees should be allowed into the U.S., he told members, unless “we are 100 percent certain they won’t do us harm.”

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Three days later, with nearly unanimous support from Republicans, the SAFE Act passed the House. No markup. No amendments. No regular order.

Democrats were livid. “At no time have I ever been as disturbed as I am today about the process,” Hastings said. Rep Jim McGovern (D., Mass.) echoed that sentiment: “Don’t try to justify what cannot be justified,” he told Republicans on the Rules Committee.

#share#Less than two months ago, with John Boehner in charge, the most conservative members of the House would have stood right alongside them. After all, it was the reason they fought to depose Boehner in the first place — an iron fist wielded at leadership’s discretion, shutting out the conference’s rank-and-file in the name of efficiency. But on November 19, those same members, even amid concerns from some that the bill’s language was too weak, rallied behind leadership.

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Indeed, even Babin, who introduced an amendment favored by several conservatives that would issue a 180-day moratorium on the program, was in good spirits following leadership’s declaration of a closed rule. “I’d be lying if I said I was really happy — I do think my bill was much stronger,” Babin says. “But I’m not going to burn any bridges right now. I have twelve grandchildren — there’s nothing more important to me than that we are safe, and this is a step in the right direction.”

He compares Ryan to Sam Houston, the American general who defeated Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto, securing Texas’s independence from Mexico. “People were skeptical of Houston at first, but he ended up being one of Texas’s greatest leaders,” Babin says. “You’ve got to give a guy his time, and I’m willing to do that.”

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It’s a mood indicative of what Freedom Caucus member Mark Meadows (R., N.C.) calls “a new day” in the House. “We want to be committed to process, but with what happened on Friday, to wait until January to get it fully through committee, it’s not what the American people want. I think the audible that was called by our leadership is something that should be applauded.

“Ryan reiterated in conference just this morning that he’s committed to regular order, and I believe him,” Meadows adds. “We don’t want to be so rigid in demanding an open process that we fail to be responsive.”

“You can disagree on tactics, but there’s one thing that Republicans are absolutely united in: national security,” Collins says.

More mainline conservatives report a similar sense of the conference’s temperature. For Representative Chris Collins (R., N.Y.), the GOP’s unified front speaks to a universally shared party value. “You can disagree on tactics, but there’s one thing that Republicans are absolutely united in: national security,” Collins says. “At this point, we’re more astounded by the lack of Democratic support for what we all thought would be a pretty bipartisan bill.”

That said, Collins argues it would be remiss to pin this progress on the nature of the political moment alone. “Paul Ryan has been a strong leader throughout this,” he says. “We’ve had a pretty divided conference . . . but sometimes a dust-up allows you to come back together and say, ‘Okay, let’s do better.’ And that’s where you’re seeing that with Paul: It’s not just words; there’s action.”  

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The rhetoric from the different GOP factions is soaring, but it could also set Ryan up for an untimely fall. Boehner had these moments, too, after promising an open process and an inclusive conference during his own initial speaker’s campaign back in 2011. For Ryan, it’s an encouraging sign that even for a bill that was largely a show vote — it’s expected to die at the hands of a Democratic filibuster in the Senate — the conference’s rightmost flank is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, despite excoriating Boehner for such empty gestures in the past.

#related#Ultimately, a real question remains as to whether Ryan can sustain this good faith from a GOP faction wary of leadership to begin with. According to GOP consultant Steve Schmidt, it’s crucial to recognize the goodwill that inevitably comes from a leader’s honeymoon phase, without discounting the very real differences between Boehner and Ryan.

“Ryan’s definitely experiencing the honeymoon phase right now, and that will last as long as it lasts,” Schmidt says. “But you’ll likely see more willingness to cooperate with Ryan, and for longer, because he’s a guy who prefers policy over power. It’s tough to say the same for John Boehner.”

Whether because of a honeymoon phase or his collaborative instincts, and however long it lasts, there’s a tangible optimism coursing through Ryan’s House at the moment.

As HFC member Raúl Labrador (R., Idaho) puts it: “No more infighting, for now.”

— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.

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