By Alexander Bolton – 10/29/15 08:05 AM EDT
Senate Democrats are optimistic that Rep. Paul Ryan’s ascension to Speaker will make Congress less dysfunctional and open the door to major deals in the future.
Based on Ryan’s track record, Democratic leaders say they’re encouraged that Washington is entering a new chapter that will be a break from the divisive era of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
“Every time I’ve dealt with him, he’s been straightforward, he’s been honorable, and he’s been willing to compromise,” Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.) said of Ryan.
“I think that’s the really positive thing about him, who he is as a person,” added Schumer, who will take over as Senate Democratic leader in 2017.
Ryan (R-Wisc.), who is set to be elected Speaker in a formal floor vote on Thursday, is well known for authoring conservative budgets that liberals have hammered for years. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) even labeled his 2015 budget plan as “not good for children and other living things.”
Yet the Ways and Means Committee chairman earned good will with Senate Democrats as chairman of the House Budget Committee when he worked with Senate counterpart Patty Murray (D-Wash.) in 2013 to hammer out a budget deal that partially lifted the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration.
They also saw him as an ally in the effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform in the last Congress. He participated with House Democrats and conservatives such as Reps. Sam Johnson (Texas) and Raul Labrador (Idaho) in secretive immigration reform talks in 2013.
More recently, he negotiated with Schumer on an overseas corporate tax reform proposal that would bring in billions of dollars in new revenue, enough to fund a desperately needed multi-year transportation bill.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) even went so far as to endorse Ryan before he secured the top job, calling him “reasonable” compared to some of the other candidates for Speaker.
The deal-making has been used by critics of Ryan as a weapon. His work on immigration and support for the 2008 financial bailout were both cited as reasons he should be denied the Speakership by some Republicans.
And while Democrats are hopeful they may have a negotiating partner in Ryan, there is also fear that he will move to the right under pressure from conservatives inside and outside the House Freedom Caucus.
“There’s optimism based on his track record but the question is if he can withstand pressure from the Tea Party caucus in the House,” said a Democratic leadership aide.
In winning his conference’s nomination to be elected Speaker, Ryan promised to unify Republicans and change the way that it does business.
While he voted in favor of the budget deal reached this week, he criticized the process that led to it, arguing Republicans settled on a strategy far too late.
After Ryan said the process “stinks,” Reid chided him for having selective amnesia.
“It’s the same process he used with Patty Murray two years ago, so he should go back and look at his clippings,” Reid told reporters.
Ryan also promised GOP colleagues during a private meeting Tuesday morning that as Speaker he would not bring an immigration reform bill to the House floor if it did not have majority support within the Republican conference.
He has also halted talks on tax reform although Democrats are hopeful he’ll come back to the table.
“We were working with him until about a week ago and then he got busy. We’ll have to see in his new position if he’s willing. But we’re still willing to talk,” said Schumer.
Pro-immigration reform Republicans in the Senate still think an immigration deal is more likely in the next Congress with Ryan in control of the Speaker’s gavel.
“I do. He favors reform. Beyond that he’s very articulate spokesman for that position. That helps,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), a Republican who helped draft the comprehensive Senate immigration reform bill passed two years ago.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), another author of the Senate bill, said he believes that Ryan in his heart wants to get something done but may not be willing to pick a fight with conservatives.
“He’s always been favorably inclined but I’m just not sure he has enough Republicans who would support it,” he said. “There are some members who are so adamantly opposed he might not want to risk early on a huge fight with them.”
Brendan Buck, a spokesman for Ryan, emphasized that his boss opposed the 2013 Senate immigration bill.
“He’s been clear there’ll be no comprehensive immigration reform under this president,” he said.
That bill stalled in the House two years ago and relations between the two chambers have steadily deteriorated, even after Republicans seized control of the Senate.
Senate Republicans hope Ryan will improve communication between the Senate and House GOP, which broke down at times this year.
“The House might as well be 100 miles away for lack of coordination with the Senate. So we really do need to dramatically improve that relationship between the House and the Senate,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who was elected in 2010. “I think Paul recognizes that same thing.”
Johnson said Boehner’s top-down management style fell out of sync with the Senate and House GOP majorities, which are full of junior members.
He thinks Ryan will do a better job of getting rank-and-file members to buy into big initiatives.
“I like John. He’s got many fine qualities. But I think he was more top down, I think that’s sort of the old management style around here. The new management style has got to be bottom up and I’ve certainly seen Paul do that,” Johnson said.