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Meet Paul Ryan, The Man Who Might Be House Speaker

Oct 13, 2015
Originally published on October 21, 2015 9:37 am

This post was updated at 9:30 AM ET on October 21, 2015

The man many Republicans would like to see as the next speaker of the House of Representatives has gotten really good at saying "no" over the past year.

But after weeks of pressure from many corners of the Republican Party, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan announced Tuesday night that his "no" is now a "maybe."

"I cannot and I will not give up my family time. I may not be on the road as often as previous speakers," Ryan said at a press conference Tuesday after laying out his conditions for taking the job to House Republicans. "But I pledge to try and make up for it with more time communicating our vision, our message."

Ryan is popular throughout the GOP and many view him as the only Republican who can unite the fractious Republican majority in the U.S. House, the party's largest in more than 80 years.

But the path to "maybe" has been a long one.

In January, the 45-year-old Ryan said no to running for president in 2016. Last month after Speaker John Boehner announced his retirement, Ryan said no again. And when Boehner's heir apparent — House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy — suddenly withdrew his candidacy, Ryan's office issued a statement within the half-hour saying again, no, he would not be a candidate for speaker.

"I don't want to be speaker. It's a good job for an empty nester," Ryan, the father of three school-age children, told reporters in Wisconsin this month.

Boehner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and other prominent Republicans urged the nine-term congressman to reconsider.

"There's a reason everybody's looking at Paul — he is the consensus choice," said fellow Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. "Other people may be able to step up to the plate, may be able to forge that consensus. But we already know Paul has already forged it. He's already everybody's choice."

Ryan's ability to walk that fine line between the Republican Party's hard-line conservative and its establishment wings goes back years, but it's rooted in his budgets. When he became the ranking GOP member on the House Budget Committee in 2007, Ryan proposed slashing hundreds of billions of dollars of future government spending, including what would amount to deep cuts for future recipients of Social Security and Medicare.

"It was because he was able to talk about those things that the Tea Party really kind of birthed," said Christian Schneider, a conservative columnist for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and fan of Ryan's.

By 2012, Ryan's budget proposed cutbacks to other safety net program, like food stamps, which Ryan likened to a "hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency."

Only a handful of Republicans signed on to early drafts, but in 2012, Ryan was Romney's pick to be the GOP vice presidential nominee and his budget became, in effect, the party's platform. Still, Ryan could also work with Democrats from time to time — including a 2013 agreement to delay automatic budget cuts.

But the 2013 spending deal, Ryan's past votes for the 2009 bank bailout and the 2001 No Child Left Behind education law and his support for an immigration overhaul have earned Ryan the suspicion of some in the conservative grass roots, warned Schneider.

"Because of that, the very Tea Party he helped create has now turned on him," said Schneider.

It's no sure thing that the block of no-compromise conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus who have held up this speaker election would support Ryan. For Johnson in the Senate, the question is whether Ryan wants the job.

"If he decides to do this, from my standpoint, this is a political sacrifice on his part from what he really wants to do, and it's a sacrifice in terms of time away from his family," said Johnson.

As chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Ryan would be at the center of any effort to rewrite the tax code under a Republican president and still make it back to his home in Janesville, Wis., on the weekends. But as Speaker, he'd be faced with some of the hard choices that would very likely alienate many of the very people who find him so likable today.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

House Republicans have their largest majority in more than 80 years. But they're so divided they can't agree on who should lead them. A conservative block of lawmakers effectively deposed one House speaker and rejected the next candidate in line to replace him. It's against that chaotic backdrop that Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is being billed as the guy who can unite the warring factions. Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson reports on Ryan and the pressures he faces.

SHAWN JOHNSON, BYLINE: Over the past year, Congressman Paul Ryan has gotten really good at saying no. This January, he said no to running for president in 2016. Last month, after Speaker John Boehner announced his retirement, Ryan - the father of three school-aged children - said no again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Sir, are you going to run for speaker?

PAUL RYAN: I'm not.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Why not?

RYAN: 'Cause I don't want to be speaker.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, who do you think will be...

RYAN: A good job for an empty nester.

S. JOHNSON: And when Boehner's heir apparent, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, suddenly withdrew his candidacy, Ryan's office issued a statement within the half-hour saying again, no, he would not be a candidate for speaker. Like the other times, it sounded convincing. Only this time Ryan's colleagues won't take no for an answer. Boehner, Mitt Romney and other prominent Republicans reached out to Ryan, urging him to reconsider. Fellow Wisconsin Republican, U.S. Senator Ron Johnson, says that's because Ryan would do something for the party that maybe nobody else could.

RON JOHNSON: There's a reason everybody's looking at Paul. He is the consensus choice. Other people may be able to step up to the plate, may be able to forge that consensus, but we already know Paul has already forged it. He's already everybody's choice.

S. JOHNSON: Paul Ryan's ability to walk that fine line between the Republican Party's hard-line conservatives and its establishment wings goes back years. But it's rooted in his budgets. When he became the ranking GOP member on the House Budget Committee in 2007, Ryan proposed what would amount to deep cuts for future recipients of Social Security and Medicare. Christian Schneider is a conservative columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and a Paul Ryan fan.

CHRISTIAN SCHNEIDER: It was because he was able to talk about those things that the tea party really kind of birthed.

S. JOHNSON: By 2012, Ryan's budget proposed cutbacks to other safety net programs, like food stamps.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RYAN: We don't want to turn this safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency that drains them of their will and their intent to make the most of their lives.

S. JOHNSON: Only a handful of Republicans signed on to early drafts, but by 2012, Ryan became the GOP vice presidential nominee, and his budget became, in effect, the party's platform. Still, Ryan could also work with Democrats from time to time, including an agreement to delay automatic budget cuts. Again, Christian Schneider.

SCHNEIDER: Because of that, now the very tea party that he helped create has now turned on him. They're the folks that think that shutting down the government might be a good idea.

S. JOHNSON: Some conservatives are also critical of Ryan's support for measures such as the 2009 TARP bank bailout, which he defended on the House floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RYAN: This bill offends my principles. But I'm going to vote for this bill in order to preserve my principles, in order to preserve this free enterprise system.

S. JOHNSON: It's no sure thing that the block of no compromise conservatives in the House Freedom Caucus who've held up this speaker election would support Ryan. Senator Ron Johnson says he thinks they would. The question is whether Ryan wants the job.

R. JOHNSON: If he decides to do this, from my standpoint, this is a political sacrifice on his part, OK, from what he really wants to do, and it's a sacrifice in terms of time away from his family.

S. JOHNSON: Ryan is only 45. As chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, he's in a position to rewrite the tax code under a Republican president and still make it back to his home in Janesville, Wisc., on the weekends. But as speaker, he'd have to make some of the hard choices that would likely alienate many of the very people who find him so likeable today. For NPR News, I'm Shawn Johnson in Madison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.