He has a new job, speaker of the House, but Rep. Paul D. Ryan has stuck with a longtime routine, sequestering himself on a hunting stand in Wisconsin, picking off deer that he will turn into jerky, brats and links to sustain him through the year.
Making sausage, literally, is a hobby of the new speaker – he grows an annual beard for deer hunting season – but it’s one he'll have less time for as of Monday, when he gavels a new session of Congress to order in an election year.
As his party struggles to coalesce around a presidential nominee, Ryan plans to use his majority on Capitol Hill as an incubator for Republican ideas on the campaign trail.
“My goal is to help unify the conservative movement so we can unify the Republican Party so we can give the country a really clear choice,” Ryan told reporters recently at his office in the Capitol.
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“The members, together, are going to come together and assemble an agenda that we present to the country,” he said. “We owe people the right to decide if they want to stay on this path or not … . That’s our obligation.
“We can’t wait around until July when we have a convention” and pick a presidential nominee, he added. “We’ve got to get going now.”
Moving quickly would allow Ryan to try to define the GOP along his preferred lines – the “confident America” agenda he has talked about in recent speeches. That would enhance his influence as a leader who is already quite popular in his party.
It also could give Republican House and Senate candidates something to hold onto if the presidential nomination goes to a candidate unpopular with general-election voters. Many Republican officials worry that a Donald Trump candidacy, for example, could prove disastrous to the party’s candidates in close Senate elections.
Ryan has long been the party’s big thinker, rather than its heavy-lifter – he has proposed many big plans over the years, but not passed much substantive legislation until recently. With few must-pass bills pending in 2016, he and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky have a wide-open canvas on which to sketch the party’s agenda without having to worry too much about actually turning bills into laws.
Republican senators and representatives will meet jointly for a mid-January retreat to begin setting priorities – repeal Obamacare, lower taxes, cut spending – not as bills that President Barack Obama would sign into law, but as measures that set out a clear contrast with Democratic proposals.
But the day-to-day output from Congress may not be as inspiring to voters as the lofty pronouncements Ryan has been making: “We need to raise our gaze,” he said in a recent speech.
One area of common ground between the Republican Congress and Obama could be criminal justice reforms, but no votes have been scheduled.
The top 2016 goal of both Ryan and McConnell is to return Congress to “regular order” – the step-by-step process of passing bills through the congressional committees and then each chamber.
First up, the House is set to vote Wednesday to repeal Obamacare and defund Planned Parenthood, sending the measure to Obama’s desk, where a swift veto has been promised. Congress does not have the votes to override the veto, and so the bill is not expected to become law.
The Senate will consider legislation to ban Syrian refugees from resettling in the United States, following an earlier bill approved by the House. But Obama is likely to veto that, too.
Those votes may be merely symbolic, but going through the motions matters to conservative activists who have accused GOP leaders of caving in during past fights rather than seeing them through to a conclusion.
For much of the remainder of the year, the Republican leaders plan to devote floor time to dispatching with the spending bills needed to fund the government.
Their hope is that since Congress already has agreed with the White House on an overall budget blueprint for this year and next, they can avoid a year-end scramble and the threat of another government shutdown – showing voters that under GOP control, government can function.
“Some thought the Senate could never be cured of its dysfunction and its gridlock,” McConnell said recently. “But the new majority you elected didn’t agree. We believed the Senate could be restored to a place of high purpose again, and we’ve made great strides over the past year proving that it can.”
That’s the kind of message that resonates in Washington and among conservative activists, but may prove a tougher sell among voters. Americans give Congress dismal approval ratings, barely breaking into double-digits.
Without a hefty legislative agenda ahead, Ryan, who was the midseason replacement after former Speaker John A. Boehner called it quits, can focus on forming the party’s vision for the next president. And that means he may end up doing more sausage making at home this year than on Capitol Hill.