WASHINGTON — Representative Paul Ryan took several major steps Thursday to fill a leadership void in a fractured Republican Party starved for a national figure to articulate a vision and unify its warring factions.
The unassuming Wisconsin congressman — known not only for his tax policies, but for his duck hunting, intense workouts, and strolling the Capitol with headphones blaring music by Rage Against the Machine — wrapped up the support of key GOP House groups and is poised to become the next speaker after votes next week.
“I am ready and eager to be our speaker,” Ryan wrote in a letter sent to House Republicans on Thursday evening, making his bid official. “This is just the beginning of our work. There is a long road ahead. So let’s get started.”
But as he returns to center stage, Ryan may face an even more difficult task than he did as the vice presidential nominee in Mitt Romney’s failed 2012 bid to seize the White House from President Obama.
While he has secured united support to win the gavel, it remains unclear whether he will have any more success than the current House speaker, John A. Boehner, in corralling disruptive representatives who want to use the threat of a national credit default and government shutdowns as leverage in their quest of conservative goals.
Most House Republicans said Thursday that they hoped they could move forward and unite in a way they have not been in years.
“Whether you like it or not, we went through a little bit of a cleansing exercise around here,” said Representative Bill Flores, a Texas Republican who is chairman of the conservative House Republican Study Committee.
While there has been significant drama on Capitol Hill over when, whether, and whom the House Republicans would pick a new leader, the basic problems facing House Republicans remain unchanged. A Democrat sits in the White House. Republicans hold the Senate, but they lack a filibuster-proof majority.
Ryan is also a reluctant leader. Speaker is not a job he wanted. He agreed to pursue it only after majority leader Kevin McCarthy dropped out of the bidding under conservative criticism, and after he was lobbied by figures such as Romney and Boehner.
Ryan supporters are heaping enormous expectations on him, hoping that he can not only cure House dysfunction, but also unite the party like no one else in Washington or on the presidential trail has been able to do.
“He’s a game-changer. He’s an opportunity for us to really start anew,” Representative Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican and chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said in an interview.
But already there are signs of fraying within the party.
“I think there’s probably a honeymoon period, but it’ll be very brief because we’ve got some big issues,” said Representative Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has said that unless Congress authorizes more borrowing authority by Nov. 3, the federal government will default on its debt and risk economic calamity. The latest short-term federal budget will expire Dec. 11, and if no action is taken the government would shut down.
Ryan has not yet outlined a strategy for dealing with those issues. Both in the past have divided Republicans on how to proceed, with conservatives willing to threaten default and shutdown in order to win concessions from Democrats, while most establishment-minded Republicans have preached pragmatism and warned they alone would be blamed for the fallout.
Over the past several days, Ryan has tried to consolidate support and determine whether the various factions in the House could support him — and some of his demands. In private meetings, he has said he wants to create a broader strategy so that Republicans are all on the same page.
“He thinks if he can establish a sound strategy with a good vision, that should help unify us and perhaps make our day-to-day activities a little less challenging,” said Representative Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican.
Ryan on Thursday received the endorsements of the Tuesday Group, a band of centrist lawmakers, and the Republican Study Committee. On Wednesday, two-thirds of the conservative House Freedom Caucus said they would support him, which was not the four-fifths majority required for a formal endorsement but enough to ensure that Ryan has the votes needed to become speaker.
“Maybe he believes, after talking to us, that we’re not as crazy as some people make us out to be,” said Representative Mick Mulvaney, a South Carolina Republican and a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus. “And we’re not really interested in burning the building down tomorrow — next week, maybe. Please say that I said that tongue in cheek.”
A formal vote of House Republicans is scheduled to take place Wednesday, with a vote by the full House on Thursday.
Ryan came to Congress as a 28-year-old former congressional aide and policy wonk. He’s always been a man in a hurry — his father and grandfather died at a young age — and he got into politics shortly after graduating from Miami University in Ohio.
In Washington, he has developed a reputation as a gracious warrior and canny politician. His opponents warn that underneath Ryan’s smiles are damaging policies. In the past he has promoted plans to cut government spending and reign in the federal debt — but he has often eschewed bipartisan compromise to accomplish either goal.
When Boehner was negotiating with Obama over a “grand bargain’’ that would cut entitlement programs in return for raised taxes on high income earners, Ryan said the deal would be impossible. Ryan also asked Boehner in 2011 not to put him on a bipartisan super committee of House and Senate lawmakers charged with meeting in the middle with Democrats to devise a plan to stabilize the national debt.
Those hard-line approaches won him cachet among conservatives and help explain some of their support now. But how that track record affects prospects for future compromise is an open question.
The turmoil “is unusual, it is unreasonable, it’s embarrassing,” said Representative Charles Rangel, a New York Democrat and the second-longest serving member in the House. “I can’t even enjoy this as a Democrat.”
Rangel said Ryan was a “good guy” who could be effective. But only if he is able to win the kinds of concessions from conservatives that Boehner could not.
“These people here take no prisoners whether they’re Democrat or Republican,’’ Rangel said. “How the hell can Paul be different unless they back off? How? It really doesn’t make any difference.”
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com.