An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Paul Ryan Could Be Next Speaker, But Hard-Liners Have A Big Decision To Make

Rep. Paul Ryan, R- Wis., at a news conference following a meeting of House Republicans on Tuesday night. Ryan says he will run for House speaker if the disparate GOP factions can get behind him.
Andrew Harnik
Rep. Paul Ryan, R- Wis., at a news conference following a meeting of House Republicans on Tuesday night. Ryan says he will run for House speaker if the disparate GOP factions can get behind him.

Updated 10:40 a.m. EST

Paul Ryan made it all but official Tuesday night.

He told his fellow Republicans he had returned from a 10-day recess visit home to Wisconsin with a new attitude toward being speaker of the House.

After weeks of being ostensibly uninterested and even hostile to the idea, Ryan had found a reason to seek the most powerful post in Congress and the second spot in the presidential succession (after vice president).

"I came to the conclusion that this is a very dire moment, not just for Congress, not just for the Republican Party, but for our country," Ryan said. "I think our country is in desperate need of leadership."

That was one of several lines Ryan delivered to waiting reporters after a late-evening, closed-door meeting with the Republican Conference. Here's another:

"I have shown my colleagues what I think success looks like, what I think it takes to unify and lead, and how my family commitments come first. I have left this decision in their hands, and should they agree with these requests then I am happy, and I am willing to get to work."

What Ryan made clear in that meeting was that all the party's factions would have to unite behind his candidacy, or he would not take the big gavel. That means the Republican Study Committee, a conservative group, and the Freedom Caucus, a more assertively and actively conservative group, would have to agree to support him — along with the Tuesday Group, a group of avowed moderates, and the rest of the House GOP that belongs to none of the above.

And it was equally clear to all who heard Ryan that the only question mark was the Freedom Caucus. This recently formed body of about 40 members features many "Tea Party"-era members, who have served since the 2010 Republican takeover of the House. They have been increasingly frustrated since their party captured the Senate as well in 2014.

The Freedom Caucus had largely driven the decision of the current speaker, John Boehner, to retire at the end of this month. Its members had threatened to challenge and short-circuit his powers as speaker, if he moved legislation they opposed (reaching out to Democrats for enough votes to cancel those of the House members furthest to the right).

When Boehner's No. 2 man, Kevin McCarthy of California, stepped up to succeed him, the Freedom Caucus presented a list of demands for procedural changes and power-sharing arrangements. McCarthy said he could not embrace that program and withdrew as a candidate for speaker.

It was not immediately clear Tuesday night whether Ryan had accepted any more of the Freedom Caucus agenda than Boehner or McCarthy. Ryan has indicated that he wants to forestall motions to "vacate the chair," a floor maneuver that undercuts the speaker's essential authority. The Freedom Caucus had threatened to use such a motion against Boehner shortly before he quit.

In his only public statement on the subject, Ryan said that rules and other internal matters should be determined by the Republican Conference as a whole. That may be enough to placate the Freedom Caucus, and it may not. Ryan might accept some of their ideas and submit others to votes of the conference — where he can expect to prevail.

The Freedom Caucus may decide to dig in and fight, or it may decide it is satisfied with the scalps of Boehner and McCarthy and the prospect of greater leverage under the new regime. That decision will determine whether Ryan's ascent to the rostrum is a divisive struggle or a coronation.

Ryan also warned his colleagues that he would not be hitting the road to raise money and recruit candidates, at least not as relentlessly as Boehner and McCarthy have done. Ryan's obligations to his young family (Ryan is just 45) would preclude that. But Ryan also said his obligations to his children argued for giving the speakership a second look.

"My biggest worry is the consequence of not stepping up," Ryan said, "of having my own kids ask me: 'When the stakes were so high, why didn't you do all that you could do?' "

The Republican Conference met again Wednesday, and Boehner set a conference vote for a new leader for Oct. 28 with a full House vote the next day.

Boehner told Fox Tuesday that he expected Ryan to run and to amass the votes needed to be elected speaker. Boehner, 65, has previously spoken highly of Ryan as a potential successor. As an undergraduate at Miami University of Ohio, Ryan actually volunteered to work for Boehner's first congressional campaign in 1990. Ryan was first elected to the House in 1998 at the age of just 28.

To complete the steps of succession, Ryan must first declare candidacy officially. The second step is to carry a majority of the 247 Republicans in the chamber in a closed-door vote, next Wednesday. The final step would be to win an outright majority (218) of the full House on Oct. 29.

To reach 218, Ryan would need the support of all but about 30 Republicans. That would seem to require at least some votes from the Freedom Caucus. That group has endorsed one of its own, Daniel Webster of Florida, to replace Boehner.

Ryan had said he would not "horse trade for votes" with the Freedom Caucus. But, on Tuesday, he met with its chairman, Jim Jordan of Ohio. Jordan indicated afterward that his group still planned to vote for Webster, but might be willing to accept Ryan.

That could mean that Jordan and his allies would vote for Webster in the first round, but be willing to support Ryan, if he were the party favorite, in the floor vote Oct. 29. Jordan and his allies had threatened to withhold their support in a floor test of Boehner's speakership last month. They have said at times that they would withhold their votes from anyone who did not meet their criteria.

The momentum now forming behind Ryan's "reluctant" bid to be speaker may prove irresistible, even for the House Republicans' blocks of granite on the right. Still, it may be harder to placate other elements of the conservative political world, which began sharpening their knives for Ryan last week. Bloggers, columnists, talk show radio hosts and a host of activists have been highly vocal in resisting Ryan in recent days.

Although he was popular within the party as the running mate for Mitt Romney in 2012, Ryan has angered many on the right with his budget deals with Democrats and middle-of-the-road stance on immigration. Many figures in the conversation on the right have denounced him this month, including Texas senator and presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who said he could not call Ryan "a true conservative."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for