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Paul Ryan's conditions for House speaker job: 'Right way' or unrealistic?

Many GOP colleagues see Rep. Paul Ryan as the only viable speaker candidate capable of unifying the party. Still, some hard-liners are bristling at his demands.

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    Rep. Paul Ryan (R) of Wis. smiles as he walks from the Capitol across Independence Avenue to the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, Oct. 21.
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Every potential speaker of the US House has expectations about how to do the job. But it’s highly unusual that a potential speaker candidate, in this case, Paul Ryan, would make his expectations so public – and make fulfilling them a condition of his running at all.

Then again, the Republican from Wisconsin is in a highly unusual position – one that allows him to make demands, some of which would change how the speakership is run.

GOP colleagues from across the political spectrum have been clamoring for this likable and experienced former vice-presidential candidate to seek the top job in the House, which is second in line to the presidency. They see him as the only viable candidate capable of unifying the party.

That has given Representative Ryan a certain amount of leverage.

“This was not something he sought out, so I think it was in his right to lay out what he would do for a Ryan speakership,” says Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R) of Florida. “I think he’s doing it the right way.”

That way unfolded Tuesday night as Ryan shared with GOP members what he would need to be a successful speaker. He outlined his criteria with reporters after the closed-door meeting:

He’s asking for the backing of all major GOP groups, including the hard-line Freedom Caucus, before a speaker election, not afterward. He also wants to be a speaker who lays out a positive vision – and gets results, rather than focusing on the blame game. He wants to update the rules of the House, but also guard against a procedure that dissidents could use to toss the speaker. And he wants to keep his young family his priority, which means not traveling constantly for fundraising.

“We need to move from an opposition party to a proposition party,” Ryan told reporters. “If I can truly be a unifying figure, then I will gladly serve.”

Before this week, Ryan said multiple times he did not want the speaker job. He’s in his “dream job” right now as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. For a policy wonk like him, that chairmanship is heaven. This family man has also said he can't spare the weekends required for this 24/7 job.

So he’s given members a deadline: Agree to his “requests” by Friday, or he’ll happily return to wonk-dom in Ways and Means.

So far, some hard-liners have bristled at his list.

Ryan told reporters that instead of being on the fundraising hustings, he would spend time communicating the GOP vision. That would mark a change from the present.

Other speakers have tried to be the positive message guy. Republican Newt Gingrich was famous for his “Contract With America,” but that was obscured by all the controversy swirling around him, says John Pitney, a congressional expert at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.

Speaker John Boehner hasn’t been much of a vision man, Mr. Pitney says. Neither has he been able to unite his conference around such issues as immigration or an alternative to "Obamacare."

Meanwhile, his accomplishments – including the first real reductions in government spending since the end of World War II – were drowned out by tea party anger.

Republicans “found that anger is high-octane fuel. But it’s not a renewable resource, and eventually anger burns out,” Pitney says.

He points out that Ryan comes from a congressional background as an aide to Jack Kemp of New York, who urged Republicans to be positive – to promote a message of what they’re for, not just what they’re against.

Ryan’s biggest challenge with the Freedom Caucus, a group of about 40 hard-liners, will probably be about House rules. That may sound like inside baseball, but it's a matter of great relevance to caucus members.

They're demanding a bottom-up approach to running the House, from a bigger voice in making committee assignments to a greater ability to offer amendments.

Some right-wingers have been punished for straying from the party line. They want that to end. Other Republicans say hard-liners have not been disciplined enough and warn that devolving too much power to members will result in chaos.

The Ways and Means chairman has generally supported a greater emphasis on “regular order” that would give individual members more say. But he hasn’t publicly laid out specifics, except to voice concern about the rule to “vacate the chair” – the tool that hard-liners recently used to threaten Speaker Boehner. That's one of the things that Freedom Caucus members want to talk to him about.

Some Freedom Caucus members have said a move to scratch the "vacate the chair" rule is a non-starter, while others say they’re keeping themselves “open” to a Ryan speakership. As of now, they are supporting Rep. Daniel Webster (R) of Florida for speaker. But Representative Webster is unlikely to get the nomination, even if Ryan drops out.

Several hard-liners have suggested that Ryan’s family priorities are incompatible with the speakership. Boehner was a fundraiser par excellence, and he spent countless weekends away from his Ohio home raking in millions of dollars for the GOP.

But others, including Boehner, say it’s possible to restructure the job to accommodate Ryan’s family. If so, that would mark a generational – and institutional – change in the role of the speaker.

Ryan says he’s leaving the decision about his potential speakership in the hands of the members – meaning the Freedom Caucus, as he enjoys widespread backing otherwise.

The Freedom Caucus has to “decide if they want to be part of this team,” Representative Curbelo says. They have to decide "if they want to move forward an agenda that can make the American people proud. If they want to get as much conservative legislation passed through Congress as possible."

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