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Between Delays And Mending Relations, How Much Has Paul Ryan Accomplished As Speaker?


Paul Ryan has been speaker of the House for six months. So far this year, the House has failed to pass a budget. There are delays on spending bills. Many House members are openly anxious about the rise of Donald Trump in the Republican presidential primaries. Now, Speaker Ryan will chair the convention, and some Republicans have suggested he ought to be a candidate for president, if the convention is deadlocked. Mr. Ryan has said he's only not interested, he'd refuse the nomination. Susan Davis is NPR's congressional reporter and joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Are the divisions that drove John Boehner from the speaker's job just all healed over?

DAVIS: (Laughter) Wouldn't that be nice? No, in a word, they're not. I think that, you know, in this Congress, Paul Ryan certainly has started the year with a tremendous amount of goodwill from his colleagues. He gets very high marks where John Boehner did not on making more of the rank and file feel included, from decentralizing power from the speaker's office and having it be more of a bottom-up operation. More work has shifted to committees. There are more meetings of wings of the party that were - used to be outside the door are now inside the room.

That said, the fundamental problem that John Boehner had is the fundamental problem that Paul Ryan has, is that the only way you can put forward an agenda is if you have 218 members of your own party that can put forward and pass legislation. And he keeps tripping over this problem. And that - part of that is the division between the more mainline Republicans who want to move forward an agenda and a group of very committed, hard-line right conservatives who do not want to compromise on anything.

SIMON: So that - I mean, so that's why there's a lot of stuff stalled, right - the new budget, various spending bills, a bill to address Puerto Rico's economics crisis.

DAVIS: Right. And even on the spending bills and the budget bill, last year they negotiated a two-year deal. So this year was supposed to be easy. And then when this year started, those same conservatives - often referred to as the Freedom Caucus - said, you know, we don't like that budget deal. We think we should try to negotiate a better deal. And Paul Ryan said, look, we can't change the rules. We can't renegotiate a deal we already signed off on.

So he's had a very hard time getting them to change their mind. This has jokingly been referred to by my colleagues at Politico as the "Seinfeld" Congress because it's about nothing (laughter). And there's very little expectation that there's going to be a tremendous amount of legislating done this year. If anything, it looks like the lame-duck session, after whatever happens in this election, is where we might see a really quick turnaround of a bunch of legislation.

SIMON: I'll note "Seinfeld" was a huge hit. And there are people who are digging in their heels who say that's what the American people, or at least their constituents, want.

DAVIS: Yes. And you can still get a lot of things done at the end of the year.

SIMON: I have to ask - Speaker Ryan has come out with a series of speeches on major problems - health care, the economy. Why does he seem to be carving out that kind of agenda in the middle of a presidential campaign? And yet, he says he's not running for president.

DAVIS: Well, normally that kind of agenda would be set by the...

SIMON: And I take him at his word.

DAVIS: Yes. And he - it is right. He is not going to run for president. But normally that kind of agenda is set at the top of the ticket in a presidential year.

SIMON: Yeah.

DAVIS: The presidential candidate will talk - will be setting the agenda and the policy agenda. Look at what is happening at the top of the ticket. We're not really talking about issues. We're still fighting out whether it's going to be a contested convention, who that nominee's going to be. And Paul Ryan has long-established himself as a policy guy within the Republican party.

And he has said, look, he has got a majority to protect in the house. And he's got members of his own that need to be able to run on something. And he has a philosophical view that the Republican Party has been too long been an opposition party and now needs to become a proposition party and tell voters exactly what they would do if they win in November.

SIMON: Susan Davis, NPR's congressional reporter, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVIS: Thanks, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.