US House under new management, but it's business as usual

AP News
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Posted: Dec 12, 2015 10:09 AM
US House under new management, but it's business as usual

WASHINGTON (AP) — New Speaker Paul Ryan promised a fresh start for the House.

But it's looking like business as usual as lawmakers wrap up a year-end spending bill that pays for Planned Parenthood, the president's health care law and other Obama administration priorities, while shunning some top conservative priorities.

Last-stage negotiations are taking place in private and at the highest levels, shutting out rank-and-file lawmakers and even committee chairmen, despite Ryan's promises to include them.

The bill looks likely to pass with primarily Democratic votes, despite the Wisconsin lawmaker's goal of garnering majority House GOP support for major legislation.

Even the issue that several conservatives name as their No. 1 priority — tightening controls on Syrian refugees coming to this country — looks unlikely to make it into the final bill.

Yet far from threatening a coup and trying to oust Ryan, as they did to former Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, conservatives are applauding. Not the $1.1 trillion spending bill, which most of them hate and will oppose when it comes to a vote, probably on Wednesday, but Ryan himself.

Through a combination of involving the dissidents, listening to them, respecting them and plainly flattering them, Ryan has managed to turn Boehner's most avowed enemies into some of his main cheerleaders, all without altering the actual legislative product of the House.

The feat is all the more striking because the catch-all government-wide spending bill, days away from a shutdown deadline that Congress agreed just Friday to move back by five days, is exactly the type of legislation and process that conservatives complained about mightily when it happened under Boehner.

"I believe that he is really doing everything that he said he'd do as far as making an inclusive process and reaching out and taking members' concerns to heart," Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., said of Ryan.

Salmon, a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus that pushed Boehner out the door in September, recounted how Ryan interrupted his own family time last weekend to call and spend half-an-hour discussing Salmon's push for Congress to vote on a use of force authorization to combat the Islamic State group.

"I thought it fell on deaf ears like it always would have before," Salmon said. "That would have never happened with John Boehner."

Another conservative activist, Rep. Steve King of Iowa, said the spending bill is unfolding much as he anticipated, with leadership ignoring the hard-line faction and searching for Democratic votes instead. Yet King bears Ryan no ill will. He even invited Ryan to speak Wednesday at a weekly breakfast of conservatives hosted by King. Ryan accepted — something else Boehner never did.

"I'm not going to be able to give him a vote but I don't think we need to have a revolt over it, either," King said. "Boehner almost cleaned the barn, but this is the last pile of manure that conservatives may have to walk around."

King's comment points to one reason Ryan is getting a pass on a product and process that conservatives abhorred under Boehner. Many Republicans still blame Boehner for the current state of affairs: the need to pass a single measure with all 12 annual spending bills stuffed into it, instead of moving each spending bill through committee and then to the floor under a "regular order" process adored by conservatives.

Ryan has repeatedly criticized the current process, telling lawmakers in private that the massive spending bill amounted to a "crap sandwich."

"This is something I more or less inherited from the last regime," he told reporters this past week.

Ryan is promising lawmakers and the public that things will be different next year. He is pledging a bold and specific agenda that will offer a clear contrast with Democrats, even before seeing who emerges as the GOP presidential nominee.

He also is offering assurances that instead of mammoth bills negotiated at top levels and dropped onto the floor at the last minute, spending bills will emerge in orderly fashion from committees. Instead of power consolidated at the top by leadership, it will devolve down to committees.

"He doesn't like this process but that's the hand he's been dealt," said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn. "We've got to get through this, but he said next year it's different. Get a strategy out there, do this from the bottom up, from committees."

But next year, Ryan will face the realities of divided government, a Democratic president with a veto pen, a Senate with an empowered Democratic minority and a House with few Republicans willing to sign onto deals that meet Democratic demands to boost government spending.

Whether he can navigate effectively without Boehner to blame and amid election-year politics may stand as the true test of his speakership.

"A lot of this as much as anything is Paul and the conference dealing the best they can with a bad hand," said Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., "with tremendous hope for next year."