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How Speaker Ryan is retooling the GOP agenda

In his first four working weeks, new Speaker of the House Paul Ryan presided over passage of a $600 billion defense bill, a bill to tighten screening of Syrian refugees and a five-year highway bill. Political director Lisa Desjardins offers a closer look at Ryan’s agenda, then joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the funding deadline.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now we turn to newly-elected speaker of the House of Representatives, Republican Paul Ryan.

    He promises to overhaul internal House procedures, giving rank-and-file members more say. And he's laying out an agenda for his party. Ryan is already facing one of his biggest challenges, keeping the government running.

    Our political director, Lisa Desjardins, reports.

    REP. PAUL RYAN, Speaker of the House: What's next?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Paul Ryan is on a roll. In his first four working weeks, the new speaker presided over passage of a $600 billion defense bill, a plan to tighten screening of Syrian refugees, and a five-year highway bill, the types of big controversial bills that had been stuck in Capitol gridlock sometimes for years.

  • REP. PAUL RYAN:

    I became speaker just over a month ago, and I would like to think we have hit the ground running. We are dealing with everything from highways, to ISIS, to funding the government.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    This wasn't the plan for the 45-year-old from Wisconsin. He'd just started his dream job as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. But the father of three young children agreed to become speaker, thanks to two chaotic weeks when sharply divided Republicans could not agree on anyone else.

  • REP. PAUL RYAN:

    Thursday was a great day. Thursday was a day where we came together as a conference and unified, and agreed to proceed together with a vision.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    And his vision is about ideas. Ryan is a student of political philosophy, influenced by his mentor, the late conservative Jack Kemp, who saw free markets and tax cuts as the best antidotes to poverty, and Ayn Rand, the divisive author who stressed individualism.

  • REP. PAUL RYAN:

    Ryan is an admirer, but has been careful to say he doesn't fully embrace her philosophy. He is a bootstraps conservative, setting out to retool not just the Republican House, but the Republican agenda itself. Put together a positive agenda, and take it to the American people. Give the people of this country the choice that they have been yearning for.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    But as Ryan aims to win Americans' confidence, Democrats say he is dangerous.

    REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), Maryland: He is more hard-edged ideologically than Speaker Boehner was. Speaker Boehner was a rock-ribbed — rock-ribbed conservative. Paul Ryan had sharper ideological edges.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Congressman Chris Van Hollen may be the Democrat who knows Ryan the best, after four years of working as his Democratic counterpart on the House Budget Committee. Van Hollen says Ryan's agenda is extreme, including his Medicare plan that would end the senior health care program as it exists now and replace it with limited-amount vouchers.

  • REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN:

    It would do great damage to Medicare. It would end the Medicare guarantee.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Ryan argues that, without such changes, Medicare will go bankrupt. It's a pragmatic, mathematical view. And that wins him love from conservatives. But those same conservatives are also his biggest challenge.

    REP. SEAN DUFFY (R), Wisconsin: This is Paul Ryan's real first big test.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Fellow Wisconsin Congressman Sean Duffy is talking about the government funding fight, a fight that is electrified with red-hot conservative issues, including Planned Parenthood funding and how to screen refugees.

  • REP. SEAN DUFFY:

    These packages, they're never great. They're big, they're long, they spend a lot of money. This thing's going to stink no matter the way you look at it, and Paul Ryan is going to have to make it smell as rosy and lilacy as possible. We will see how well he does.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    This kind of battle has paralyzed the House and its leaders for years. Do Republicans take a hard stance that they know the president will block, risking a government shutdown, or do they fund the government, at the expense of their own values? Do they compromise or do they dig in?

    REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN (R), Florida: That's why sort of threading that needle in a very careful way. He's surfing his way through some very big surf that our GOP Caucus is throwing at him.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen believes Ryan is succeeding.

  • REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN:

    People are trusting him. Yes, there's going to see how it all works out, but, as of now, even the most malcontent and discontented Republican member, of which we have a few — you're never going to make everybody happy — has got to see that he's really trying his best to make the process work.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    And process is key. House Speaker John Boehner was ousted, in part, due to complaints from conservatives who felt that leadership ignored them. Now Ryan is changing House process.

    A few big items, giving members what's called regular order. That means opportunities for everyone to propose and vote on more amendments, and for committees, not party leaders, to drive debates. Also, to engage everyone, he added one more all-member meeting each week.

    Congressman Dave Brat was one of the unsure conservatives who didn't vote for Ryan as speaker, but he says, so far, he is impressed.

    REP. DAVE BRAT (R), Virginia: So, next year, we anticipate regular order. That's a huge gain. I'm on the House Freedom Caucus. We have been fighting for that and that bottom-up leadership.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    But in a time of threats from Islamic State, concerns over immigration, and continued job fears, process only goes so far. Ryan is challenging his party to come up with a clear agenda.

  • REP. PAUL RYAN:

    If we want a mandate, then we need to offer ideas. And if we want to offer ideas, then we need to actually have ideas.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    As he pushes for new ideas, Ryan is also tackling his party's identity now: pushing back against presidential GOP front-runner Donald Trump, and Trump's call to block Muslims from entering the United States.

  • REP. PAUL RYAN:

    Normally, I do not comment on what's going on in the presidential election. I will take an exception today. This is not conservatism. What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for, and, more importantly, it's not what this country stands for.

  • REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN:

    He's going to improve our Republican brand. I hate to use that word brand, but that's the way people look at this nowadays. And it's been tarnished, and we're going to earn that Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval again.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Those are big national goals. But first, of course, the new speaker must keep government running. The funding deadline is just days away.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And Lisa joins us now from Capitol Hill.

    So, Lisa, whatever Speaker Ryan is able to get done this year, we know — and you mentioned it — 2016 is an election year. Typically, Congress practically grinds to a halt during election years.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Right.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    What are the expectations for him then?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Well, I think Paul Ryan is looking at this election year in a very different way from most speakers of the House, Judy.

    I spoke to one of his senior aides tonight, who said that Speaker Ryan thinks the party may not have a nominee until June or after, and that that is way too long for the party to wait to really spell out an agenda. So here comes Speaker Ryan. He's ready to step in and is planning to try and articulate some policy, some proposals early next year, even as Republicans are fighting for the White House.

    He could be wading into some tricky waters, but even though Speaker Ryan is not running for president, it seems he could be a major architect for whoever does become their candidate.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And just very quickly on this budget shutdown, what does it look like? Are they going to keep the government open?

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Right.

    Well, the lights are still on here. And they're going to be on actually a lot this weekend. There will be staffers around the clock this weekend trying to work out dozens of still hitches, different items that the two parties need to agree on.

    Next week, we will know a lot more. So far, it looks like they could work this out. But, Judy, while the deadline has been moved to next Wednesday, I will make a little prediction. It might get moved again. We will see.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    That would be a shock.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    Imagine.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Lisa Desjardins, thank you.

  • LISA DESJARDINS:

    My pleasure.

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