In his new book, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) recounts shaking his head in frustration last fall as fellow Republicans sought to use a government shutdown as leverage to gut Obamacare.
“It was a suicide mission,” Ryan writes in The Way Forward, his memoir released Tuesday. “This can’t be the full measure of our party and our movement. If it is, we’re dead and the country is lost.”
Reflecting on the shutdown that Newt Gingrich had led in 1995, Ryan wrote of his worry about repeated missteps: “I saw the damage it did. We couldn’t afford to take a hit like that again — not for a strategy that had no hope of advancing our core principles.”
As is often the case with political memoirs, however, the actual history was far more complicated. Ryan’s office told HuffPost that his co-authorship of an eventual budget deal with Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) proves he was against the shutdown.
“Chairman Ryan voted several times both to avoid the shutdown and to restart funding for various parts of the government during the shutdown,” Ryan spokesman Brian Bolduc said in an email.
But during the October 2013 standoff, Ryan didn’t seem like a lawmaker nervous about damaging the party or movement. Instead, he was often obstructive.
In the days after the shutdown began, the House Budget Committee chair advocated tying the government shutdown fight to the federal government’s looming credit default — an idea that only raised the stakes of negotiations and ensured the shutdown would last at least another two weeks. In an Oct. 8 Wall Street Journal op-ed, he suggested reforming entitlements in exchange for raising discretionary spending levels.
Tea Party types weren’t thrilled with the idea since it left intact the president’s health care law, which had been the shutdown’s raison d’etre. But reaction from the press corps was mixed. Some reporters hailed Ryan for starting a dialogue between House Republicans and the White House. Others saw it as a thinly disguised play for conservative policy reforms.
Either way, the shutdown continued. And in the subsequent days, Ryan dug in. The Washington Post reported on Oct. 12 that in a closed-door meeting, he railed against a bipartisan Senate deal to reopen the government, “saying the House could not accept either a debt-limit bill or a government-funding measure that would delay the next fight until the new year.”
“According to two Republicans familiar with the exchange,” the Post reported, “Ryan argued that the House would need those deadlines as ‘leverage’ for delaying the health-care law’s individual mandate and adding a ‘conscience clause’ — allowing employers and insurers to opt out of birth-control coverage if they find it objectionable on moral or religious grounds — and mentioned tax and entitlement goals Ryan had focused on in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.”
With days to go before the debt limit deadline was breached, House Republican leadership ultimately found themselves in a horrible jam, with the public blaming them for keeping the government closed and hurting the economy. Senate Republicans swooped in with a bill to reopen the government, raise the debt limit and provide a framework for future budget talks.
If, as he suggested in his book, Ryan thought the whole episode had been a stain on the GOP’s brand, it would seem logical that he would have jumped to support the one piece of legislation left to end the standoff. But when that Senate bill came to the House floor, he was one of 144 Republicans members who voted no. The bill passed with Democratic support.
“To pay our bills today — and to make sure we can pay our bills tomorrow — we must make a down payment on the debt,” he said. “Today’s legislation won’t help us reduce our fast-growing debt. In fact, it could extend the debt ceiling well into next year, further delaying any action. In my judgment, this isn’t a breakthrough. We’re just kicking the can down the road.”
After the stopgap bill reopened the government, Ryan negotiated a longer-term budget deal with Murray that removed the specter of another government shutdown. That deal actually raised spending levels from sequester levels, though it extended the sequester’s 2 percent cuts to Medicare providers by two years. It included none of the entitlement reforms that Ryan had suggested in his Wall Street Journal op-ed.