Amid the Would-Be Speakers, Paul Ryan Sticks to His ‘No’

Amid the Would-Be Speakers, Paul Ryan Sticks to His ‘No’

By JENNIFER STEINHAUEROCT. 7, 2015

Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin during a House Ways and Means Committee hearing in June. Mr. Ryan has said he will not seek the speakership. Credit Brendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Three House Republicans have been feverishly trying to persuade colleagues to choose one of them as the next speaker in Thursday’s closed-door election. But many of those lawmakers are looking wistfully at the man waiting offstage and refusing the job — Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, powerful committee chairman, lyrical orator, former vice presidential candidate, fitness fanatic and barehanded fisherman, or catfish noodler.

For the past few weeks, Mr. Ryan, 45, has been cornered in the House gym, pestered as he has tried to tuck into his lunch, and whispered about in hushed conversations over a possible brokered election for speaker.

He has read with vague interest his colleagues’ lamentations to reporters about their desire to see him take the job that Speaker John A. Boehner said he would give up at the end of the month. The answer has always been the same: Nope.

Talk of Mr. Ryan in the speaker’s chair took on added urgency on Thursday when Representative Kevin McCarthy stunned his Republican House colleagues by dropping out of the race to succeed Mr. Boehner. Mr. Ryan quickly put out a statement affirming again that he would not seek the office, one of the most powerful in government.

“I asked him a while back if he would consider being the speaker,” said Representative Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, who calls Mr. Ryan his favorite member of Congress. “He put his hands on my shoulders and said, ‘I love you guys, but not enough to be your speaker.’ ”

Ryan in the speaker’s chair took on added urgency on Thursday when Representative Kevin McCarthy stunned his Republican House colleagues by dropping out of the race to succeed Mr. Boehner. Mr. Ryan quickly put out a statement affirming again that he would not seek the office, one of the most powerful in government.

“I asked him a while back if he would consider being the speaker,” said Representative Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, who calls Mr. Ryan his favorite member of Congress. “He put his hands on my shoulders and said, ‘I love you guys, but not enough to be your speaker.’ ”

Indeed, Mr. Ryan is a singularity in the fractious House, a figure revered in most conservative circles and respected by virtually everyone else in the House Republican Conference. In a body defined by division, he is a unifying presence anchored in equal parts by strict supply-side budget dogma, social conservatism, appeals to address the poor, and old-fashioned charisma.

But for Mr. Ryan, who has long been admired for his budgetary rejoinders to President Obama — he once called the administration’s economic plans “a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us” — the decision is largely specific to his own life.

Professionally, he has what he has long proclaimed to be his dream job: chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, where he is trying to assemble sweeping legislation to overhaul and simplify the tax code — an achievement long sought but not accomplished since Ronald Reagan was president.

Personally, he is the father of three children 10, 12 and 13 years old. As House speaker, who is typically on the road three weekends a month raising money, he would miss long stretches of time at home in Janesville, Wis.

“I don’t want to be speaker,” Mr. Ryan said after Mr. Boehner said he was leaving. “This is a good job for an empty nester.”

But what Mr. Ryan did not cite is the worst-kept secret in Washington: The speaker job right now stinks — especially for a still young man with the loftiest of ambitions, the presidency.

While House speakers — from Henry Clay, who served three times in the 19th century; to Sam Rayburn, the country’s longest-serving speaker; to Mr. Boehner — have been inherent institutionalists, there is a backlash among House Republicans now against experienced consensus builders. Speakers used to largely be former appropriators, the men who doled out the money, a role now reviled by many Republicans.

The conservative flank of the Republican conference, which is clamoring for fast and seismic changes to the House rules, is looking for someone who will embrace their bottom-up vision for House management, defying the actual role of the top leader. So far, the House Freedom Caucus has endorsed Representative Daniel Webster, Republican of Florida.

“It’s not as pleasant a job as it was,” said James A. Thurber, the director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. “Tip O’Neill and Rayburn had power. They could direct appropriations to people’s districts, they could remove people from committees, things like that. You can’t pull people together as in the old days.”

Indeed even Mr. Ryan, who played a major role three years ago in striking a deal to avoid big tax increases and spending cuts, has lost some of his panache with the small but currently powerful group that helped bring Mr. Boehner’s ouster.

On Wednesday, a group of conservative House members, when asked about Mr. Ryan, sat stone- faced. “Paul Ryan isn’t running,” said Representative Justin Amash, Republican of Michigan. “I haven’t asked him to run.” It seems nearly anyone in leadership is going to be deemed insufficiently conservative.

Mr. Ryan also realizes that the speaker’s job, especially in today’s polarized climate, is not a great springboard to better things, nor has it ever been.

Only one president, James K. Polk, ever held the job, although he spent three years as governor of Tennessee after leaving the House. Even then, things did not work out terribly well for him. James A. Garfield, Republican of Ohio who served from 1863 to 1880, was the only member of the House to ever make the leap right straight to the White House. He was assassinated 200 days later.

For all of its leadership components, the speaker’s job has not historically been viewed as a good analogue for the presidency.

“There are a different set of skills that are involved in being speaker,” said Lynne Cheney, who wrote a book on speakers with her husband, Dick. “The hands-on knowledge that Sam Rayburn had, knowing every member, or like Tom Reed, who had parliamentary skills, well, those are not skills that you need to become president.”

She added: “People then as now worry about Washington insiders. If you are speaker of the House, you have done a lot of work on the inside.”

Unlike Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the favorite to become speaker, and other leaders in the House, Mr. Ryan has a real shot at statewide office, should he ever decide to go that route. But being too closely associated with the House at a time when Congress is deeply unpopular would not help him in that kind of race, either.

Mr. Ryan, who continues to live in Janesville’s historic Courthouse Hill neighborhood where he grew up, has a history of saying no to jobs others would have leapt toward.

He declined to head up the Office of Management and Budget for President George W. Bush. He said no to a Senate race from Wisconsin in 2010 and 2012, and passed on running for president in the current cycle. His colleagues pressed him to run for majority leader when that job holder, former Representative Eric Cantor, had a stunning primary loss last year.

Anyone running for speaker knows the most difficult thing now is fending off insurgents in his own party.

“The institution is built in a way that you need compromise,” Mr. Thurber said. “To build compromise, you need people who will follow. Boehner was remarkable in terms of keeping his patience, and in the end, he could not bring the people from the far right together. That’s the new normal now.”
Correction: October 7, 2015

An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to how frequently the House speaker typically travels to raise money. It is three weekends a month, not three weekends a year.

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