It's been six months since Paul Ryan took the speaker's gavel, and House conservatives who helped put the former in front of former Speaker John Boehner's name say Ryan has dramatically altered the House -- even if its legislative outcomes and internal dynamics haven't really changed.
Unlike Boehner, Ryan does not mislead members to vote for something they ultimately wouldn't want, Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) told The Huffington Post last week.
“Boehner would do whatever it takes to get the first vote, knowing where he was going in the end. And Paul wants to make sure that he’s honest about where we can go,” Labrador said. “I’m not saying I feel good. I’m just saying I appreciate his effort."
HuffPost talked to more than a dozen conservative members, on and off the record, about the difference between Ryan and Boehner. And even though most members acknowledged the legislative outcomes haven’t really changed -- when there’s an outcome at all -- Ryan’s more open and straightforward style is making conservatives feel better about leadership.
Case in point: The budget.
Conservatives still want a budget at a lower level than the one Republicans and Democrats agreed to in October. But Ryan says it’s not going to happen. He says the end product is going to be a budget at $1.070 trillion, not at $1.040 trillion as conservatives want.
And where Boehner, faced with the prospect that the votes aren’t there for the higher number, may have clamped down on moderates to get a budget done at the lower number -- temporarily, at least, just to break the chamber’s constipation -- most agree that Boehner would have also ultimately passed a year-end spending bill at the higher level.
(Some conservatives said Boehner would have bypassed the budget process to pass the $1.070 trillion number with the help of Democrats. Others said he would have done exactly what Ryan is doing: wait until May 15 when the House can bring appropriations bills to the floor even without a budget.)
““I’m not saying I feel good. I’m just saying I appreciate his effort."”
In the absence of a budget or deeming resolution that would allow Ryan to bring appropriations bills to the floor, the House has been stuck doing messaging bills -- legislators have turned into post office renamers.
Even with the slow output, however, conservatives aren't clamoring for leadership changes. They aren't openly mocking the speaker. And they aren't meeting in the basement of Capitol Hill watering holes to plot an overthrow.
“The biggest issue right now is that it’s not leadership that’s the problem; it’s the membership that’s the problem," Labrador said. "You have too many members that are trying to have it both ways. They say one thing back home and they do something else over here. They beg leadership not to have to take the tough votes.”
Labrador is referring to votes like an Obamacare replacement, which Republicans have promised for years but have yet to hold for fear of the electoral consequences. Conservatives fundamentally believe Republicans have a responsibility to seriously put forward alternatives to the 2010 health care law, as well as vote on major spending decreases and entitlement reform.
But those votes can hurt Republicans from moderate districts. And even if every House Republican tells voters they want to repeal Obamacare, there are plenty of moderate members in the conference who aren't too keen on actually doing it.
“And that’s eventually going to become a problem for Paul," Labrador said of those members. "So he’s going to have to decide how he can lead the conference in a more conservative direction. I know he’s not trying to make decisions for the conference, which we all appreciate, but at some point you have to stand up and lead.”
Ryan's style to this point has been to step back and defer to a normal legislative process, one where committees, not leadership staffers, are writing legislation. But that process hasn't yielded much in the way of results -- at least not yet.
Ryan has created a number of task forces to put forward a full legislative agenda, partly as a way to differentiate House Republicans from the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, Donald Trump. Thus far, though, Republican voters seem to have spared Congress their anti-establishment animus. Not a single Republican member has lost a primary this year.
But Ryan still thinks it's a good idea for Republicans to have something to show for their year in Congress, even if that something amounts to little more than a glorified press release. In the meantime, he's been having dinners with a revolving slate of Republicans each week.
“No matter what the results, it’s hard to be critical of the fact that he’s listening and wanting to be a bottom-up speaker.”
And that face-time with Ryan seems to be making a difference.
“No matter what the results, it’s hard to be critical of the fact that he’s listening and wanting to be a bottom-up speaker," said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the member who offered the resolution to depose Boehner.
Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas), one of the Republicans who voted against Ryan in October, said he's already spent more time with Ryan in the six months than he did with Boehner in three years.
"You see what you see behind the podium when he’s reading stuff," Weber said of Boehner. "But how do you compare that?”
More than communication, aides and lawmakers pointed to a difference in attitude.
"Things had gotten so bad in the last six months of Boehner, it seems like there was no dialogue at all," one aide told HuffPost. "He didn’t say it directly, but basically his body language and posture toward the Freedom Caucus members and some others was, 'Go fuck yourself.' And everybody — including the Freedom Caucus members — knew it."
Brendan Buck, a senior adviser for both Ryan and Boehner, said Ryan is just trying to make members feel greater ownership of what goes on in the House. "And we’re showing them there doesn’t have to be an us-versus-them dynamic," Buck said. "When there’s a transparent process and constant dialogue, decisions can be made as a team."
But not every conservative thinks Ryan is all that distinct from Boehner. When HuffPost asked Rep. Paul Gosar what the difference between the two was, the Arizona Republican offered this small difference: "Less smoke."
“I haven’t seen a lot," he said. "We’ve been told regular order on the budget; we haven’t seen that. In fact, we’ve seen abdication.”
Gosar argued that, by going with a $1.07 trillion budget and not the $1.040 trillion that conservatives want, Ryan is doing what Boehner would have. He said conservatives need to hold the speaker accountable.
"People want to give everybody a pass, but leadership comes at a price," Gosar said.
There’s a chance Ryan’s effort to listen to conservatives could end up being entirely fruitless, particularly if they simply turn on him when lawmakers have to take the other kind of tough vote -- one that, say, raises the debt ceiling or funds the government. And Ryan may end up chasing conservative votes that will never be there.
"The one problem I have with his approach to the Freedom Caucus is that it has a wag-the-dog feel to it," the senior GOP aide said. "If Boehner went too far with his 'fuck you' approach, there is a sense that Ryan has swung too far in the opposite direction and is coddling them."
But even that aide acknowledged that, if Ryan's seemingly more inclusive approach is just to make conservatives feel better, it might work. "And at a stylistic level,” the aide said, “it already has.”