Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo

Freedom Caucus majority backs Ryan for speaker

While short of an endorsement, the announcement from the House Freedom Caucus removes the main roadblock for Paul Ryan

The hardline House Freedom Caucus said Wednesday a majority of its members would support Rep. Paul Ryan for speaker of the House, a likely indication that he'll get the job if he wants it, and potentially heralding a new start for a deeply divided House GOP.

Paul Ryan
Yuri Gripas/Reuters

The group of around three dozen conservatives stressed that their support for Ryan was not an official endorsement because they couldn't muster the 80 percent agreement such an announcement would require. Yet members of the rebellious group made clear that their intent was to unite behind Ryan and give him the consensus he has said he needs to seek the speakership.

“A supermajority of the House Freedom Caucus has voted to support Paul Ryan's bid to become the next speaker of the House,” the group said in a statement which described Ryan as “a policy entrepreneur who has developed conservative reforms dealing with a wide variety of subjects, and he has promised to be an ideas-focused Speaker who will advance limited government principles and devolve power to the membership.”

Ryan issued a statement Wednesday evening, which said “I'm grateful for the support of a supermajority of the House Freedom Caucus. I look forward to hearing from the other two caucuses by the end of the week, but I believe this is a positive step toward a unified Republican team.”

Until the announcement, support from the group was not certain. They have repeatedly opposed GOP leaders and pushed the current speaker, John Boehner, to announce his resignation. And their backing fell short of the official endorsement Ryan had sought. 

But Boehner, who hopes to leave Congress at the end of this month, sought to move the process forward, scheduling secret-ballot House GOP elections for Oct. 28, to be followed by a floor vote in the full House the next day.

Given the Freedom Caucus' pattern of causing headaches for leadership, and the concerns raised by individual members ahead of Wednesday night's meeting, the decision to announce support was significant. It amounted to a rare peace offering from hardliners in the caucus to the establishment-minded lawmakers they've battled for years, and a chance to unite a party at war with itself on Capitol Hill and the presidential campaign trail.

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, said the choice was now up to Ryan, who must decide “whether he wants to really lead the conference.”

“I think he's a good man,” said Labrador, who said he voted for Ryan in the Freedom Conference meeting. “I think he's that somebody who could bring the Republican Party together … And I think he needs to see if this is good enough for him and if he can work with us.”

The Wisconsin congressman, a reluctant candidate for the post, was asked to run by mainstream party leaders seeking to resolve a crisis set in motion when compromise-averse conservatives pushed Boehner to resign and then pressured his likely successor into withdrawing.

On Wednesday, some House members took issue with Ryan's suggested changes to congressional rules and even his desire to balance family life with the demands of the job. Freedom Caucus members said that in offering their support for Ryan they were not embracing the changes he sought.

“No other speaker candidate came in and said ‘Here's the list of my demands, either meet those or I'm not going to do this,’” Rep. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, a member of the hard-line caucus, said the day after Ryan outlined the conditions for his candidacy. “Speaker's a big job. And it's not a 9-to-5 job. So there are a lot of questions to be answered.”

The Freedom Caucus announcement came as Ryan was making the rounds to the three major House caucuses whose endorsements he was seeking as a condition for running for speaker. It's a job the 45-year-old never wanted but is exploring, he says, out of a sense of duty after Boehner announced his resignation and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy abruptly withdrew from the running to replace him.

Ryan has made clear that he does not want to be the latest victim of Republican dysfunction and will run only if it becomes clear he can unify the House GOP.

"I won't be the third log on the bonfire," he said.

GOP infighting

The Republican Party infighting, evident even before Boehner's retirement announcement last month, has overshadowed a stark deadline Congress faces.

While the Freedom Caucus is relatively new, having organized early this year, hard line conservatives — many of them small-government tea party activists — have had an outsized influence on major fiscal decisions since 2011, when Republicans took control of the House from Democrats.

Since then, the House has repeatedly flirted with a default on Washington's financial obligations. Conservatives forced a 17-day government shutdown in 2013 as they tried to kill Obamacare.

This year, if Congress fails to increase the federal government's statutory debt limit by Nov. 3, the Treasury Department has warned of possible consequences that could lead to a historic default.

A default, which Boehner wants to avoid before he leaves office, could shake financial markets and the economy, but the Republican-controlled Congress had no clear plan yet to prevent it.

For now, the House Republican leadership has not settled on when it would vote to raise the debt limit or what would be in a bill dealing with it. "We're talking a lot about it right now," McCarthy told Reuters.

Earlier on Wednesday, the House, in a partisan vote, passed a Republican bill requiring the Treasury to keep borrowing to pay the principal and interest on certain obligations if the debt exceeds the statutory limit.

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