Conservative lawmakers are putting House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) on notice that his honeymoon is over, and they expect him to aggressively push a bold GOP agenda in the second session of the 114th Congress.
"He needs to start putting up real conservative reform in the House," said Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), a leader of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of rump conservatives that helped force former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) into retirement last fall. Labrador said Ryan has, so far, done little to differentiate himself from the erstwhile House leader.
Labrador, who flirted with a leadership bid himself, praised Ryan for making strong speeches laying out conservative views but said he must start passing conservative legislation to differentiate the GOP from Democrats.
Several conservatives said the best option for doing that in an election year, where legislative gridlock could come early, will be in the must-pass annual spending bills. They will likely press the point next week at a combined House-Senate GOP retreat in Baltimore, where Republicans will map out their legislative agenda.
Alabama Republican Rep. Mo Brooks said the GOP needs to show it’s serious about reducing the deficit, which is due to climb for the first time in five years as a result of last fall’s budget deal. He noted fiscal 2016 will mark the first time since Republicans took back the House in 2010 that red ink increased in the federal budget.
The Congressional Budget Office found a combination of increases in spending caps for fiscal 2016 and 2017, as well as an extension of several tax breaks, including those for renewable energy, will add $57 billion to the deficit over 10 years. The deficit for fiscal 2015 was $439 billion but will likely move higher for fiscal 2016 — perhaps hitting $500 billion.
Kansas Republican Rep. Tim Huelskamp, who also helped lead conservatives against Boehner, said the increase is a result of last fall’s budget deal that the former speaker largely put in place before departing.
Yesterday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest, when asked about the president’s relationship with Ryan, touted a list of recent bipartisan accomplishments.
"The budget agreement was obviously significant," said Earnest. "It certainly was a compromise process, but it was one that was important nonetheless."
Huelskamp suggested the majority should be tougher during future negotiations. He called it a mistake to propose increased discretionary spending in fiscal 2017 and suggested the accord should be a spending "ceiling" that Republicans should not hit as they write the 12 annual appropriations bills.
Huelskamp said conservative lawmakers will judge Ryan by how aggressive he is in using appropriations bills to keep spending in check and attaching riders to advance Republican policies.
Many Republicans were ready to revolt against last year’s spending bill because it didn’t include more provisions rolling back Obama administration environmental priorities. Talks with Ryan helped sway some skeptics, suggesting leverage by the new speaker.
But even though many lawmakers gave Ryan a pass, their patience is limited. Conservative Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) was blunt in his assessment, saying the spending bills are the only measures that will pass this year and warned they should not be rolled into a massive omnibus package again.
"If we are here January next year having just passed an omnibus that is an F-minus, if we pass 12 appropriations bills and stand our ground and force the Senate to face these issues, that’s an A," said Massie of how Ryan and the House GOP would be judged.
Conservatives also said they would like the House to pass a broad tax overhaul, touching on both business and individual taxes, even if there is not an immediate deal with the White House or Senate.
Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan said the bill could serve as a "starting point" for negotiations. He noted when the last tax rewrite passed Congress a generation ago, it began with the House passing a conservative blueprint authored by then-Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.).
Ryan, a protege of Kemp’s, has long sought a tax overhaul but has also said it would be hard to get a broad rewrite done during an election year. However, the speaker has not ruled out changes in international tax rules for businesses in 2016.
House Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) also sought to tamp down expectations on a broad tax overhaul this year but said he’s been in contact with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) about addressing international tax reform, an area he noted enjoys support from Senate Finance Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Ryan.
"I’m absolutely convinced there is such strong support for overall tax reform," he told reporters yesterday. "Timing [is] to be determined, but it’s clear that 2016 is going to be a critical year to lay the foundation for tax reform, and there may be an opportunity for significant international tax reform, as well."
However, Brady said decisions on the committee’s agenda won’t be made until after leaders hear from members at next week’s retreat, which he said will be followed by a later meeting of Ways and Means Committee members.
"So we’ll come back on the 25th and sort of lay out the work plan for the committee," Brady said.
Reporter Geof Koss contributed.