WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan called on Republicans Wednesday to unify and stop fighting angrily among themselves as he tried steering his fractious party into an election year devoid of the heated showdowns between conservatives and pragmatists that transformed parts of 2015 into a GOP nightmare.
“We have to be straight with each other, and more importantly, we have to be straight with the American people,” Ryan, R-Wis., said at a Heritage Action for America policy meeting. “We can’t promise that we can repeal Obamacare when a guy with the last name Obama is president. All that does is set us up for failure and disappointment and recriminations.”
That remark conjured memories of the GOP’s unsuccessful 2013 effort — led in part by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas — to force President Barack Obama to repeal one of his legislative crown jewels, the health care overhaul he’d pushed through Congress three years earlier.
When asked on Tuesday about the results in Iowa and the apparent anger of many Republican voters, Ryan gave a rapid-fire list of why Republicans are so angry.
A leader of that battle, which produced a 16-day partial government shutdown that the public hated, was Cruz, currently a front-runner for his party’s presidential nomination. Ryan has avoided taking sides in the presidential contest and did not mention Cruz in his remarks, but made clear that he considers such tactics damaging.
“When voices in the conservative movement demand things that they know we can’t achieve with a Democrat in the White House, all that does is depress our base and in turn help Democrats stay in the White House,” Ryan said. “We can’t do that anymore.”
Ryan’s remarks followed a year that saw bitter strife between congressional conservatives and more pragmatic Republicans that led to the abrupt departure of the previous speaker, Ohio Rep. John Boehner.
The party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, Ryan ascended to the top House job at the behest of party elders last fall and has repeatedly stressed the need for GOP harmony while promising to listen to all Republicans and to give more power to rank-and-file lawmakers.
One sign of that outreach was choosing Heritage Action, the political arm of the Heritage Foundation, as a forum for his remarks. The group is one of Washington’s more politically aggressive conservative organizations, at times urging Republicans to vote against measures backed by GOP leaders that the group deems insufficiently conservative.
Jim DeMint, the Heritage Foundation president and a former congressional colleague of Ryan’s, said in a brief interview that he’s met with Ryan and lauded the speaker’s efforts to engage conservatives.
“Rather than try to beat conservatives as Boehner did, Paul is trying to harness that energy in a positive direction,” DeMint said.
Even so, Republicans may struggle this election year to push a budget through Congress because of a brewing rebellion on his right flank over spending levels.
Members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus, the group that forced Boehner out, say they can’t support any upcoming budget that endorses last fall’s bipartisan pact between GOP leaders and Obama that increased spending for both the Pentagon and domestic agencies.
It took many Democratic votes to pass last fall’s budget deal, but any GOP budget effort this spring has to be a Republican-only exercise since it will call for sharp spending cuts opposed by Democrats. The Freedom Caucus is balking at supporting any budget that endorses that year’s spending increases.
“I don’t think there will be many votes for the Boehner budget in the Freedom Caucus,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan.
Failing to pass a budget could be a significant embarrassment for Ryan. He wants the House to finish its budget work quickly this year as a signal the GOP can govern and so Republicans can focus on churning out proposals underscoring the party’s ideas on topics like national security, the economy and health care.
Ryan met with Freedom Caucus members Tuesday night to discuss the budget.
In his remarks Wednesday, Ryan said the GOP needs to unite behind “a bold, pro-growth agenda that will get America back on track” that it can display to voters in the November elections.
“We can’t fall into the progressives’ trap of acting like angry reactionaries,” Ryan said. “The left would love nothing more than for a fragmented conservative movement to stand in a circular firing squad, so the progressives can win by default.”
Ryan said Obama, “struggling to remain relevant in an election year when he’s not on the ballot,” will try helping elect another Democrat to the White House by trying to distract voters.
“So he’s going to try to get us talking about guns or some other hot-button issue and not about his failures on ISIS or the economy or national security,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State extremist group. “He’s going to try to knock us off our game.”
Instead of falling into that trap, Ryan said, “Don’t take the bait. Don’t fight over tactics. And don’t impugn people’s motives.”