Paul Ryan’s Suicide Mission

Paul Ryan will face a potentially fatal conservative revolt if he acts reasonably on immigration. Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post/Getty Images

The conundrum surrounding the congressional gridlock on immigration policy is that it’s a topic where reasonable people think reasonable people ought to be able to cut some sort of deal. Most liberals want protection for Dreamers and eventually some sort of “path to citizenship” for the undocumented, and most conservatives want border security and perhaps some tighter restrictions on legal immigration. Can’t they split the baby and work something out, preferably before DACA finally expires and Dreamers start being deported?

Reasonable people also tend to think GOP congressional leaders Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan are, deep down, reasonable people, too, being held captive by their strange president. McConnell proved his reasonableness on immigration policy by allowing this week’s free-flowing debate and expressing openness to whatever solution 60 senators could vote for. But if senators do converge around a compromise, the path to a deal would next have to overcome Paul Ryan’s dual promise to House conservatives that (a) he will arrange a vote on the hard-core Goodlatte legislation that is well to the right of the president’s proposal and which virtually no Democrats will support; and (b) he won’t let any bill onto the floor that a majority of House Republicans oppose, which may well preclude a vote on a Senate compromise.

To a surprising extent, however, both proponents and opponents of an immigration bill hope or fear (respectively) that Ryan will break his promises and force some sort of Senate compromise through the House with Democratic as well as Republican votes. Columnist Al Hunt frames this as a question of Ryan’s character, or indeed his soul:

There is a bipartisan bill in the House, too, similar to what could pass the Senate, if it adds more money for border security. The speaker should guarantee a vote on that measure, which is being put forward by Republican Will Hurd, whose Texas district covers 800 miles along the border, and by Democrat Pete Aguilar of California.

If Ryan doesn’t do that, or if he works to pass Trump’s punitive measure, it would be the final chapter in selling his political soul. He presents himself as a disciple of the late Jack Kemp, an inclusive, avidly pro-immigration Republican. There is little chance Ryan will be speaker a year from now. He could announce his retirement this year. Or more likely he will run for re-election while continuing to raise tons of money for Republicans, and then quit after the election or be in the minority anyway. Can he stand up to Trump and the right-wing Freedom Caucus?

So in Hunt’s estimation, Ryan’s gavel isn’t worth a lot going forward anyway, and he should toss it in the nearest trash can and do the right thing. This echoes fears being heard among House conservatives, as the Hill reports:

“Here is what worries me: The Speaker, just a few years ago, was a leader in our party in fiscal responsibility and yet we got a [budget] bill like we did last week,” [Representative Jim] Jordan said. “And now we are heading into an immigration debate where we know the Speaker historically has not been where the country is, or the Republican Party is, on immigration.”

Jordan’s reference to the budget deal wasn’t casual. Ryan had to make his immigration promises to conservatives precisely in order to get their votes on the budget deal. So as Jordan points out, if Ryan shows himself to be “reasonable” on immigration by helping grease the skids for a Senate compromise, he’ll have stabbed the Right in the back twice in a very short period of time. And while no one is threatening immediately to depose Ryan as Speaker if he does that, there’s no question he’d be running that risk — as Al Hunt says he should.

It’s possible Ryan will loyally schedule a vote on the Goodlatte bill and hope it goes down, which would at least open the door to some other bill being considered. But then logically the next cookie on the plate would be the president’s proposal, which is not going to be much more appealing to Democrats than Goodlatte’s plan.

Having watched politicians, for a few decades now, hang on to every shred of power by their fingernails, I am mystified by the widely shared supposition (which was reflected in all the “Ryan about to retire” speculation late last year) that the House Speaker hates his powerful job and would prefer to return to Wisconsin to “spend time with his family” as the saying always goes. The belief that Ryan’s views are significantly different than those of his House GOP rank and file is equally mystifying. Maybe he is nourishing treachery in his breast like an asp soon to be released, and will make his final act as Speaker one that enrages his fellow-conservatives and enthuses reasonable people everywhere. And if that happens, perhaps the supreme sacrifice by Ryan would not simply be squelched by the president in a single tweet. But the best bet is still that Ryan keeps his promises and an immigration deal dies.

Paul Ryan’s Suicide Mission