Rep. Matt Salmon was floored. One weekend in early December, when the Republican from Arizona was scheduled to speak at the Reagan Ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif., he got a phone call just as he and his wife were sitting down to breakfast.
“Have you got a minute?” the voice on the other end asked. “This is Paul Ryan.”
The new speaker of the US House was actually calling him – a member of the “hell no” Freedom Caucus. This is the conservative group that made it so difficult for the former speaker, John Boehner, that he retired in October.
One minute turned into 25. The speaker wanted to talk about an idea that Representative Salmon had recently proposed at the House Republicans’ weekly meeting. “That would have never happened with John Boehner,” the congressman told a small group of reporters earlier this month, evidently pleased.
It was just one of several examples that Salmon gave of the GOP speaker reaching out to conservatives who have felt shut out of decisionmaking in the House. The inclusivity is a marked change from Mr. Boehner’s top-down approach, and could help Speaker Ryan better manage the famously divided conference, observers say.
The problem under Boehner was not so much ideological, “it’s that members thought they were out of the loop,” explains John Pitney, a congressional expert at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
The new speaker from Wisconsin is giving them “a sense of ownership,” he says. Whether that’s enough to get him through next year is an open question, “but he’s off to a good start.”
For one thing, he kept the government open – a low bar, but considering the fiscal brinkmanship of the past few years, no small accomplishment. In mid-December, the House easily passed a bipartisan $1.1 trillion spending bill with little drama or suspense. The Senate quickly followed. Now the federal government is gassed up through the end of September.
Most Freedom Caucus members voted against the bill, including Salmon. Many other Republicans did, too. It busted spending caps. It repeated the much-criticized pattern of last-minute, secret negotiations over one humongous bill. It also didn’t include a tightening of the vetting procedure for Syrian and Iraqi refugees coming to the United States.
But grumbling was contained to a mumble.
“We’re cutting him slack right now and taking him at face value that next year is going to be totally different,” Salmon said in advance of the vote.
As Congress closed out its first year under Republican control, the fractious House managed to push through some substantial bipartisan legislation that also found agreement in the Senate: a $680 billion package that extends tax breaks and cuts for businesses and individuals, a long-term bill to fund transportation infrastructure, and an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind law.
Much of this work – most notably a bipartisan budget deal that set up the spending bill – was well under way before Boehner exited the scene. But Ryan’s outreach has helped improve the climate in his conference and helped bring legislation over the finish line.
Since he was elected to lead the House on Oct. 29, the youngest speaker in nearly 150 years has tried a bottom-up approach to management.
He put together a “kitchen cabinet” of disparate GOP voices to serve a leadership advisory role. He hosts weekly meals with members of the Freedom Caucus and other GOP factions. He also rewrote the rules for the influential Steering Committee that makes committee assignments that are so important to members’ work.
Under Boehner, the obscure but powerful panel was stacked with committee chairmen. Now it’s more diverse, including Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R) of Kansas – a Freedom Caucus member who was earlier kicked off the agriculture and budget committees for bucking Boehner’s leadership.
Ryan also has opened up the process of legislative sausage-making (at home, he makes sausage and jerky from the deer he hunts). And he’s throwing questions on issues and strategy back to his conference. That makes it hard for those with a minority view to complain they weren’t heard or didn’t have input.
The speaker has promised to take up individual spending bills for the various government agencies one at a time next year, instead of jamming them into a single giant bill in December. For that, though, he will need more cooperation from Democrats than from Republicans.
Ryan said he has been assured by Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D) of Nevada that he will not block spending bills from coming to the floor for debate next year. Republicans were infuriated when that happened this year. But Senator Reid's assurances have caveats. The bills and process must be bipartisan from start to finish, he said in a statement. That may well be too much to hope for in a presidential election year when lawmakers want to score partisan points.
Indeed, by forcing budgeting into the final months this year, Democrats were able to exercise maximum leverage, even though they are in the minority in both houses. Ryan was forced to deal with them because of defections in his own party and the blocking power of Senate Democrats.
Ryan's No. 1 priority for 2016 is to craft a conservative agenda that will unite Republicans, contrast with Democrats, and help deliver the presidency to the GOP. Items include a replacement for the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and a tax overhaul. But Republicans are divided on both topics.
"The same factions and variety of views that ... made it difficult for Boehner, those differences haven't gone away," says Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.
That's clear in the comments of another Freedom Caucus member, Rep. Raúl Labrador (R) of Idaho. Ryan's "honeymoon" is over, he told The Huffington Post earlier this month. As far as Representative Labrador is concerned, Ryan did poorly on the spending bill test, and he’ll have to prove himself next year.
Still, the irrepressible Ryan is optimistic.
“Since we restored that fairness to the process and I've done everything I said I was going to do, people are relieved,” Ryan told a group of reporters in a year-end interview Dec. 18.
“They now realize the outcome doesn't have to be perfect and it may not be everything they want, but I think people are turning over a new leaf. I think people see it's a culture change.”