He’s been one of the GOP’s biggest backers of legalizing illegal immigrants, and his chief legislative accomplishments were deals to boost spending and give President Obama more negotiating powers in trade deals — yet Rep. Paul Ryan has become House Republicans’ consensus choice to lead them.
The wonky Wisconsin is in his ninth term, making him far more senior than the kind of candidates the new generation of House Republicans is looking for. And he was famously one of the self-dubbed “Young Guns,” GOP insurgents along with then-Reps. Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy.
Mr. Cantor was ousted from office last year, having become the face of the GOP establishment, and Mr. McCarthy saw his own ambitions kneecapped by fellow Republicans last week when he withdrew from the race to be the next House speaker.
Mr. Ryan, however, has emerged not only unscathed but enhanced — the only person, his colleagues say, who can heal the fractious House Republican Conference.
“He cares about this institution. He’s had a very productive record as chairman of the Budget Committee, and now Ways and Means,” said Rep. Fred Upton, Michigan Republican and chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee. “He knows the characters; his word is good. I’ve been in White House meetings with him and the president. People listen.”
Mr. Ryan has repeatedly rejected entreaties to run for speaker, first saying it would keep him from spending time with his young children, and then saying he is satisfied with his work as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which is possibly the most powerful panel in Congress.
But with incumbent Speaker John A. Boehner retiring amid conservative discontent, and with Mr. McCarthy’s implosion on Thursday, the pleas have grown stronger, and Mr. Ryan has told colleagues he is considering it.
Several of the others who are looking at a bid say they’d stand down and back Mr. Ryan should he change his mind.
Mr. Ryan’s ability to escape the downfalls of Mr. Cantor and Mr. McCarthy is noteworthy given how closely they used to be tied together.
After the GOP suffered devastating election defeats in 2006 and 2008, the three men banded together and dubbed themselves the “Young Guns,” releasing a book detailing their plans for revitalizing their party. They were seen as intellectual, financial and legislative muscle behind Republicans’ efforts to climb back from the depths of the minority.
When Republicans won a House majority in the 2010 elections, Mr. Cantor ascended to the majority leader’s post, Mr. McCarthy became the majority whip, ranking just beneath him, and Mr. Ryan ascended to the chairmanship of the Budget Committee. Now Mr. Cantor is out of Congress, and Mr. McCarthy saw his own hopes for advancement go sour — both setbacks coming at the hands of conservatives who doubted the bona fides of the two.
Mr. Ryan, though, retains good will among conservatives.
“He’s the smartest of the three, and he’s the most cause-oriented of the three. He’s the most authentic of the three. His credibility inside the House exists because everybody — right, left and center — realizes he actually means what he says,” said Michael McKenna, a Republican strategist.
That was most notably on display in 2013, when Republicans were trying to move past a government shutdown that had left them dented, and with the budget sequesters threatening to impose deep cuts that were anathema to all but the most hard-core conservatives.
Mr. Ryan entered into negotiations with Sen. Patty Murray, Washington Democrat, and they reached a major deal that boosted spending in the short term in exchange for deeper cuts early next decade. And unlike many of the spending deals struck by Mr. Boehner, where he had to rely on Democrats for the votes, the Ryan-Murray agreement easily cleared the House, with the overwhelming majority of Republicans backing it.
“The reason why everybody on the right gives him so much room is they actually trust him to really get everything that he can get,” Mr. McKenna said. “It’s not that the guys on the right want 100 percent, they want guys who are going to fight for everything they can fight for.”
Mr. McKenna said that’s not the sense rank-and-file lawmakers had with Mr. Cantor and Mr. McCarthy.
Taking over the Ways and Means Committee this year, Mr. Ryan scored a major legislative victory when he won passage of fast-track trade negotiating powers for the president. Steeped in the policy details, he ran an operation that managed to cobble together a bipartisan coalition to deliver on one of the toughest issues.
But it’s not clear that those skills translate to the speaker’s job, which involves an exceptional amount of time recruiting candidates and raising money for them, refereeing disputes between powerful committee chairmen and putting out fires when groups of lawmakers rebel against the party’s direction.
The chief hurdle for Mr. Ryan, though, could be his immigration record, which has been troubling to conservatives in the past.
In the 1990s, as a staffer for then-Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, he helped derail fellow Republicans’ efforts to crack down on illegal immigration. In particular, he took credit for watering down bills from Rep. Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, that were designed to tighten the rules on immigration.
“Smith was getting a free ride because he knew immigration law so much better than most of the other members,” Mr. Ryan told Wired magazine, adding that he led an internal letter-writing campaign to tell Republican lawmakers Mr. Smith’s legislation would actually cut legal immigration by as much as 70 percent. “Once people learned what was actually in the bill, we were able to peel them off, one by one.”
Mr. Ryan also voted for a 2002 legalization bill, praised the Senate’s 2006 immigration bill and co-sponsored a 2009 Democratic bill that would have legalized illegal immigrant farm workers. Each time he was in a minority of Republicans.
But he has also routinely backed the House GOP’s enforcement bills, including voting for the 2006 Secure Fence Act and a 2005 bill that would have made being an illegal immigrant a federal crime. He also voted against the Dream Act to legalize young adult illegal immigrants in 2010.
NumbersUSA, a lobby that wants to see a crackdown, grades Mr. Ryan a D-minus on the issue.
“He has been clearly pro-comprehensive immigration reform all of his career. There’s no question about that,” said Rosemary Jenks, the government relations manager for NumbersUSA. “Pro-amnesty, pro-mass immigration, pro-replacing American workers with foreign workers.
“The whole reason Boehner had to step down was because the Republican voter base wants Republicans to challenge Obama’s transformation of America. Paul Ryan can’t do that if he agrees with Obama on the transformation of America,” she said.
Still, Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who has led the push in the House for stiffer immigration enforcement, said he has been able to work with Mr. Ryan on issues.
“If Paul is a serious candidate for speaker, it’s something I’d like to talk to him about. Things have changed as the numbers have changed, and perhaps Paul has reconsidered some of his immigration positions,” Mr. King said.
But for now, Mr. King remains a supporter of Rep. Daniel Webster, a Florida Republican who is running for speaker and who was endorsed by the conservative Freedom Caucus.
Freedom Caucus members said they wouldn’t rule Mr. Ryan out but said Mr. Webster is their man for now.
“We are going to continue our stand behind Dan Webster until such time as the number of candidates out there changes,” said Rep. John Fleming, Louisiana Republican.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who relinquished the post in 1999 after a conservative coup, warned Mr. Ryan to “be very cautious” about making a run. Mr. Gingrich, speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” said Mr. Ryan, 45, is young and has plenty of time ahead of him, but he could dent his future by an ill-advised bid.
The former lawmaker said Mr. Ryan could get the votes to be speaker, but said the fights looming over the next few months would be a challenge for anyone.
“It’s easy to get 218 on the first vote, and then you get to keeping the government open through a continuing resolution, and then you get to the debt ceiling, and if you’re not careful, by Christmas you resemble John Boehner,” said Mr. Gingrich.
• Valerie Richardson contributed to this article.
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