Paul Ryan Meets with Freedom Caucus

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans, searching for a speaker to lead them out of crisis, waited to learn Tuesday whether Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan would shoulder the thankless task.

Ryan and his aides were saying little ahead of a closed-door late-evening meeting, the first such gathering following a weeklong recess many spent in a state of suspended animation, waiting to hear from Ryan.

But in a sign that he is exploring the possibility, Ryan was meeting with the House Freedom Caucus at their request, his spokesman said. This group of three dozen or so hardline conservatives pushed current Speaker John Boehner to announce his resignation and scared off Boehner’s No. 2, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who abruptly withdrew from the speaker’s race just before the recess.

Ryan, 45, the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, has consistently said he does not want to be speaker and would prefer to stay on as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, which he’s described as his dream job.

But he’s been under heavy pressure to reconsider from party leaders who argue he is the only House Republican with the stature and broad popularity to unite a caucus divided against itself, at a moment of deep turmoil. Congress is hurtling toward an early November deadline to raise the federal borrowing limit or invite a first-ever default, and a deadline to pass spending legislation or risk a government shutdown will follow in early December.

House GOP leaders also planned to use Tuesday night’s meeting to float a debt limit plan that would link any increase in borrowing authority with deep spending cuts and a vote on a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget. Such legislation would be certain to draw a White House veto threat and die in the Senate. But it could satisfy demands from conservatives who are loudly protesting the Obama administration’s calls for increasing the debt limit with no strings attached.

As for Ryan, “I think he has the potential to unite, if anybody can, unite the various elements of the Republican conference in the House,” Sen. John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Senate Republican and a former member of the House, said Tuesday. Thune called being speaker “probably the toughest job in the world right now.”

Indeed some of the same conservative elements outside of Congress who made problems for Boehner and McCarthy are on the attack against Ryan, highlighting his support for government bailouts and comprehensive immigration legislation allowing legal status to people in the country illegally.

“We think Paul Ryan is another example of what’s wrong with Washington, D.C.,” said Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator of the Tea Party Patriots. “He’s a nice man, but it’s time for someone who is going to be speaker of the House who will disrupt business as usual.”

Yet if Ryan passes on trying for the speaker’s chair, chaos could result. Close to a dozen other lawmakers are declared or potential candidates for the job but it’s not clear if any could attract the needed support. Southern lawmakers met Tuesday to hear from several of these wannabe speakers, but one member in attendance, Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., said only Ryan had the potential to clear the field.

“He has tremendous standing, people know him,” Harper said.

Ryan did pick up one endorsement Tuesday, but it was probably unwanted. Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada declared himself a fan of Ryan’s and said he hoped he would become speaker.

“He appears to me to be one of the people over there that would be reasonable; look at some of the other people,” Reid remarked to reporters. When someone noted that an endorsement from Reid, a villain to many Republicans, could hardly help Ryan, Reid shrugged and said: “I just speak the truth.”