WASHINGTON — As outgoing Speaker Paul D. Ryan ran into Nancy Pelosi, the person most likely to take the gavel from him in January, he had two sentiments he wanted to share.
“I congratulated her on her caucus vote, and I offered my condolences,” the Wisconsin Republican said.
The congratulations were for Pelosi having secured the Democratic Caucus’ nomination for speaker with 203 votes. The condolences were for the fight the California Democrat faces in the coming weeks. She needs to flip some of the 35 members who did not check “yes” on the speaker ballot in caucus and convince them to back her in the Jan. 3 floor vote.
Ryan understands the struggle. When he first ran for speaker in 2015, there were 43 Republicans who did not support him for the GOP conference nomination, many of whom tried to extract concessions from him in exchange for their support on the floor.
“It does sound familiar,” he said, referring to Pelosi’s situation. “It’s a function of politics today.”
But Ryan said it’s “regretful” that Pelosi can’t fully run her speaker’s race on her own terms, like he did in 2015. Unlike Pelosi, who wants to hold the gavel again (she was the first woman to do so, serving as speaker from 2007 through 2010), Ryan never desired to be speaker.
It was only after California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy couldn’t get the votes he needed and dropped out of the running to replace retiring Speaker John A. Boehner, that Ryan, who was in his dream job as Ways and Means chairman, reluctantly stepped forward.
“It was an extreme benefit to me with the various caucuses and conferences we have that I didn’t need to do it and if they pushed me too far, I could just leave,” Ryan said.
While Ryan predicted that the new Democratic majority will have the same “growing pains” and “friction” that Republicans had during their reign, he suggested it will come from a different place.
“Their party is a wider party ideologically speaking,” he said.
For Republicans, differences in ideology was not their main issue.
Ryan pointed to Jim Jordan, founding chairman of the far-right House Freedom Caucus - the group that blocked McCarthy’s ascension and wanted some concessions before agreeing to back Ryan - as an example. He said they do not generally agree on tactics but they mostly agree on policy.
“They never second guessed my convictions,” he said of the Freedom Caucus.
“The key, key thing was get everyone to agree ahead of time what’s the plan, what are we going to do . and then literally lay out a timeline and hold everyone accountable to it,” Ryan added.
That worked for Ryan to some degree. Early in his speakership, House Republicans put together their “A Better Way” agenda and roughly followed through with their timeline for delivering on those plans to roll back regulations, overhaul the health care system, cut taxes and boost national security.
Sometimes they were delayed on their timetable for getting bills passed, and one big one that got through the House - the American Health Care Act - faltered in the Senate.
“On health care itself and debt and deficits, it’s the one that got away,” Ryan said, referring to one of his top policy priorities he did not get to fulfill before his retirement.
The outgoing speaker is hopeful that his successors won’t ignore the issue.
“Debt and immigration are the two issues that if we get right in this country we will have a great 21st century,” he said.
Ryan also had some advice for his successors in dealing with President Donald Trump: keep your heated private conversations to yourself rather than airing grievances just to score political points.
“It is far more successful from my experience,” he said.