As dusk spilled into an ornate Capitol room on Tuesday, House Speaker John Boehner signed his last annual defense policy bill, then left to go endorse a successor who just might be able to lead Congress out of the budgetary darkness it’s been trapped in for years.
If the disparate factions of the House Republican caucus follow Boehner’s lead, Rep. Paul Ryan would take the speakership — just as the president vows to veto the defense bill, the debt-ceiling deadline nears, and broader budget talks with the White House unravel.
Congress sent the $612 billion defense spending blueprint to meet an almost certain veto from President Obama over a mechanism that uses the Pentagon’s war chest to boost defense spending but dodge budget caps. That evening, the Wisconsin Republican said he’d accept the speakership, but only if he “can truly be a unifying figure.”
“First, we need to move from being an opposition party to a proposition party,” Ryan said. “The challenges we face today are too difficult and demanding for us to turn our backs and walk away,” he continued, citing “global terror” and “wars on multiple fronts,” but also a “skyrocketing debt.” “Yes, we will stand and fight when we must.”
“But we cannot take them on alone. Now, more than ever, we must work together … What I told the members is, if you can agree to these requests, and I can truly be a unifying figure, then I will gladly serve.”
Boehner has set a conference meeting to officially nominate his successor a week from now, with an all-House vote next Thursday.
Two years ago, Ryan — then the Budget Committee chairman — brokered a compromise with his Senate counterpart Patty Murray, D-Wash., to grant the Pentagon relief from the caps set by the Budget Control Act of 2011, while granting modest increases to some Democratic priorities.
If the conservative wing of the House Republicans, most notably the “Freedom Caucus,” agrees to his terms, Ryan could win the speakership with a stronger mandate to achieve the Ryan-Murray 2.0 deal that both the Obama administration and congressional Republicans have said they want: a long-term budget fix that enables the government to move beyond the stop-gap “straitjacket” of continuing resolutions that have hamstrung Pentagon planning for years.
While the Senate may have the votes to override Obama’s veto, the House does not. Republican leaders such as Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, say the president is playing politics with national security.
“I realize I’m naive, but I still have some illusions that national security would take precedence over politics in this White House,” Thornberry told a few reporters after the ceremony. “But we’ll see.”
Still, they’ve also allowed it is likely some sort of budget agreement will be reached before the NDAA is ultimately signed into law by Obama. Despite pressure from several in the same conservative wing that helped push Boehner out, both the retiring House Speaker and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have pledged they will raise the debt ceiling and not shut down the government.
But it now may be up to Paul Ryan.