The Truth About Paul Ryan's 'First Big Test'

This time, the cliché might be accurate. Or not.

As a Dec. 11 government funding deadline draws near, Republicans and Democrats are watching closely to see how Speaker Paul Ryan handles what is billed as his first big test: the omnibus spending bill.

At this point, it's almost a media cliché to call the next trial on Ryan's docket his first real challenge, according to Brendan Buck, his chief communications adviser.

"It’s well understood the media will call every issue the first test until we fail at one," Buck told The Huffington Post.

Except this time, the "first test" moniker might actually be true. Sort of, at least.

Ryan insists the roughly $1 trillion spending bill is in the hands of the Appropriations Committee. When a senior Democratic aide familiar with the budget talks said on Wednesday that Democrats had rejected the first omnibus offer from Republicans, Ryan's office was quick to push back against the narrative that it was the Wisconsin Republican and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) who had written the legislation.

"The proposal was an Appropriations Committee offer, constructed by the Appropriations Committee," AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Ryan, told HuffPost. She said that Ryan is "deferring" to Appropriations chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.).

Regardless of whether it's Ryan or Rogers writing the bill -- or a team of Appropriations lawmakers and staff from both sides and both chambers -- conservatives are, by and large, using the omnibus to get a sense of Ryan's negotiating style. The problem is Ryan doesn't have much of a hand to negotiate with.

Asked whether House Freedom Caucus members were actually open to supporting the omnibus, Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) told HuffPost that if there are "real victories" on policy, then conservatives would support the bill.

"The question is whether the speaker is going to fight for real victories or not," Labrador said.

He added that Ryan should rely on Republicans, not Democrats, to pass the bill.

The difficulty there is that many Republicans are already averse to a trillion-dollar appropriations bill that raises spending caps by $50 billion next year. In recent congressional history, these massive year-end appropriations bills have struggled to find even a majority of Republicans, let alone 218 GOP votes to get the bill through the House, or the 60 votes required in the Senate.

Raul Labrador believes the No. 1 priority is to address the issue of Syrian refugees coming to the U.S.
Raul Labrador believes the No. 1 priority is to address the issue of Syrian refugees coming to the U.S.

Democrats are going to have to be part of the omnibus deal by virtue of the fact that there are only 54 Republicans in the Senate -- and a Democrat in the White House who could always, you know, veto the bill.

But for Labrador, as for many other conservatives, if Democrats are already winning on the spending, then Republicans should be winning on the policy.

"If they got something they wanted, then conservatives should get something they want," Labrador told HuffPost Monday night as he left a House Freedom Caucus meeting. "And then we can talk about real compromise. Or we can talk about fake compromise."

The No. 1 priority, Labrador said at a panel discussion on Wednesday, is to address the issue of Syrian refugees. He said conservatives want, "at a minimum," the language the House passed two weeks ago that would functionally halt Syrian refugees from coming to the United States.

Democrats immediately balked at the inclusion of the House-passed language on Syrian refugees, though senior GOP aides told HuffPost they think there's some language that Democrats could agree to. Both sides seem to want to change the visa waiver program, which allows foreign visitors from 38 countries to come to the United States for up to 90 days, but aides said changes to that program would be more likely as a standalone bill, or as an addition to a year-end package of tax extensions.

As for the omnibus, conservatives also have their eyes on three abortion riders, the most significant of which would allow states to defund Planned Parenthood. That proposal is such a tall ask that Republicans didn't even bother including it on their initial offer. 

"But if those riders on Syria and pro-life issues and other issues like that are not on the bill, it's just not even worth considering," Labrador said.

House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said Wednesday at the panel discussion that 165 Republicans -- it was actually 167 -- had voted against the budget deal that set the spending numbers in the omnibus.

"And now there's also talk of adding things that, I think, make it even worse," Jordan added, mentioning a McConnell proposal that would eliminate caps on how much national parties can spend on candidates and a proposal that would give additional money to insurance agencies taking on sick customers. The Freedom Caucus took official positions against both proposals Monday night, which means that at least 80 percent of the 39-member group opposes their inclusion in the omnibus.

If it seems like conservatives are watching to see how Ryan treats their long list of demands. Democrats are watching just as intently.

He's got to deal with a lot of hard-line, right-wingers on his side Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern

Democrats were quick to reject the first offer from Republicans on Wednesday morning, but they were also quick to send over an offer by Wednesday night. And Democrats told HuffPost that they were hopeful Ryan had only sent over that first offer Wednesday, in the words of Massachusetts Democrat Jim McGovern, "to check that box."

"And so I get it," McGovern said. "I mean, he's got to deal with a lot of hard-line, right-wingers on his side."

McGovern said that Democrats would watch to see Ryan's next moves.

"And my hope is that, as we move to next week, it will be less a political document, and more a serious piece of legislation to keep the government running," he said.

Those right-wingers, meanwhile, aren't ready to plot against Ryan if he simply relies on Democrats to pass the omnibus.

"I think it's just part of the leftover from the barn-cleaning," Dave Brat (R-Va.) told HuffPost on Wednesday, in reference to the phrase former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) coined when he said he wanted to leave his successor with a clean barn.

Conservatives including Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) seem to think Boehner did the opposite. 

"I think he left a mess in the barn," he said, adding that conservatives couldn't hold Ryan accountable for all their problems.

Ryan has bought himself some goodwill through his other first tests. There was the highway bill, where the House took dozens of amendment votes in keeping with Ryan's promise to make the legislative process more open to amendments. And there was the GOP Steering Committee overhaul, where Ryan shook up the composition of the group that selects committee chairmen.

Instead of the omnibus as the be-all and end-all test, conservatives like Massie seem to be setting up yet another, even more challenging first exam.

Massie said he wanted the House to get all 12 appropriations bills done next year -- which hasn't happened since 2002 -- and he wanted it done "in truly open fashion, where anybody can offer amendments as long as they're germane." Massie added that he was also looking for the House to hold its ground if the Senate failed to do its appropriations work.

"That's going to be my litmus test," he said. 

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