WASHINGTON (AP) — The truculent House Freedom Caucus has flashed a green light — or perhaps a blinking yellow one — to Rep. Paul Ryan, opening the door for him to become the next House speaker. Yet on their way to becoming Ryan's kingmaker, the group's anti-establishment conservatives have faced a decision that could make or break their own clout as well.
If they back the Wisconsin Republican — which two-thirds of the caucus' roughly 40 lawmakers did in a closed-door vote late Wednesday — the group could improve frayed ties with their GOP congressional colleagues. But they also risk a backlash from tea party groups and talk show commentators who usually cheer them on.
"House Republicans who support Paul Ryan are entering a toxic primary environment" for their own re-elections next year, Richard Viguerie warned Thursday on his conservative website.
Block Ryan, the party's 2012 vice presidential nominee, and the caucus could have become more isolated and disliked than ever by other House Republicans and the GOP establishment and faulted for wounding the party's brand in the run-up to next year's elections.
"They make it look like this party can't shoot straight and they can't govern, and to be Republican means to have an attitude rather than a governing agenda," Peter Wehner, an adviser to President George W. Bush and Mitt Romney-Ryan presidential campaign, said of the impact had Freedom Caucus opposition prompted Ryan to not seek the speakership.
Ryan formally declared his candidacy for the job in a letter to his GOP colleagues late Thursday, saying, "We have an opportunity to turn the page, to start with a clean slate, and to rebuild what has been lost." He seems certain to win his party's nomination for the job next Wednesday and be elected by the full House the following day.
As the Freedom Caucus internally debated whether to back Ryan, there were conflicting views over whether they might hurt themselves by opposing him and derailing his candidacy for the top job. But some said with Ryan having his own demands, such as curbing members from suddenly forcing votes to depose speakers, it cut both ways.
"We're at risk of overplaying our hand, he's at risk of overplaying his," said Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., a caucus member. "You come out and give a list of conditions a mile long, is that overplaying your hand or not?"
The group derives its strength from arithmetic.
Though they've never released an official membership list, they claim around 40 members. With 247 House Republicans, a united Freedom Caucus can keep GOP support for a bill on the House floor to around 207 votes — short of the 218 needed for a majority in the chamber.
But that also means they're badly outnumbered and, besides blocking things, can achieve little without backing from fellow Republicans. Any chance of winning such support could have eroded completely had they short-circuited Ryan, who scores well in public opinion polls and was viewed as the GOP leader with the best chance of reuniting the party's warring factions.
"If you're going to work inside a team, at some point you have to ask yourself, 'Am I going to be a good teammate?'" said Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., who left the Freedom Caucus this month after concluding their tactics were hurting the GOP.
Ribble and others acknowledge that opposing Ryan could help Freedom Caucus members back home because many of their House districts are solidly Republican and deeply conservative.
Freedom Caucus members' views often echo the grassroots GOP anger that has propelled Donald Trump and Ben Carson to the top of the party's pile of 2016 presidential hopefuls. Yet the same outsider fury that helped them push Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to his abrupt resignation and prompted Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., to not seek Boehner's job also put conservatives in a box when it came to Ryan.
"People outside the group could say, 'You didn't want Boehner, you didn't want McCarthy, now you don't want Ryan? What is it that you want?'" said Rep. Rod Blum, R-Iowa, a Freedom Caucus member.
Yet when Ryan takes this new post, it doesn't mean the Freedom Caucus, whose members are famous for saying "no" to GOP leaders, will feel constrained to give him a long honeymoon.
Ryan would be starting his speakership with differences — publicly, at least — with the Freedom Caucus over changing how the House works.
He wants to curb rank-and-file lawmakers from forcing abrupt votes to remove a speaker. The Freedom Caucus wants to weaken the speaker's ability to control which bills reach the House floor and who chairs committees, rules changes that would give power to groups like the caucus at the expense of House leaders.
No one was saying Thursday that any changes had been agreed to, but a leading Freedom Caucus member signaled that they did not consider the matter settled.
"We can support him and we want him to be successful," said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho. "But we want to make sure also that he understands that this is not about crowning a king, this is about working together and making sure that every member feels like they're empowered."
AP Congressional Correspondent Erica Werner contributed to this report.