(Bloomberg) -- House Speaker Paul Ryan’s power is eroding just weeks after announcing he won’t seek re-election, threatening his ability keep the chamber’s restive Republicans united heading into an election that could cost them their majority.
Open conflict has erupted among GOP factions over immigration, contributing to an embarrassing defeat on the House floor Friday when farm legislation failed to pass. The Intelligence Committee chairman went on national television -- without consulting Ryan -- to say he wanted to hold Republican Attorney General Jeff Sessions in contempt of Congress. And Ryan was forced to reverse his decision to oust the House chaplain.
The fractures are beginning to show six months before an election that has Republicans trying to defend their congressional majorities amid signals -- from fundraising numbers and voter turnout in special elections -- that enthusiasm among Democrats could flip control of the House.
Ryan of Wisconsin is focusing on raising money and campaigning on last year’s tax cuts to hold the GOP House majority, but among both conservative and more centrist Republicans there is grumbling that they must accomplish more before the November election.
“It’s one thing to run on tax reform, but I think members want to run on other things,’’ according to Ryan Costello, a Pennsylvania Republican who isn’t running for re-election. The problem, Costello said, is that lawmakers from swing districts want a bipartisan compromise on immigration, while “folks in ruby red districts” have very different priorities.
Sarah Binder, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said these divergent GOP priorities are coming to a head as the conservative Freedom Caucus tried to hold a massive farm bill hostage to their immigration demands. Republican moderates facing potential election challenges are pursuing a different immigration agenda, pushing for a vote that could only pass with support from Democrats.
"A key problem is that these factions see different routes to keeping control of the House. Conservatives want to play to the base, moderates need to appeal to the center,” Binder said. “That’s a recipe for stalemate -- and one that a lame duck speaker seems ill-equipped to address."
Binder said that when Ryan’s predecessor as speaker, John Boehner, announced he wouldn’t run again, he did it in a non-election year. That let him, in his own words, "clean the barn" for Ryan by dispensing with difficult issues. "Ryan seems desperate to keep the barn doors shut," she said.
Ryan has responded to rebellions in his conference in the same way he has dealt with the episodic controversies sparked by President Donald Trump: private conversations about how to find a less disruptive way to accomplish the goal.
That approach appears to have worked with Devin Nunes of California, the Intelligence Committee chairman, who now says he’s having “continuing discussions” with the Justice Department to get the information he subpoenaed, rather than holding administration officials in contempt of Congress.
A Nunes spokesman, Jack Langer, said Thursday that after Nunes raised the prospect of contempt action against Sessions on television last week, he has since promised to “consult with the speaker before introducing a contempt resolution, and that remains the case."
Yet Ryan’s quiet, consultative approach didn’t work when he dispatched an aide to ask for the House chaplain’s resignation.
“Look at the chaplain incident. That was a huge loss of prestige. He had to backpedal in firing him," said Representative Gerald Connolly, a Virginia Democrat. “There are visible signs of serious erosion of influence and power.”
A bipartisan furor erupted after Ryan asked the chaplain, Patrick Conroy, to step down. That prompted Conroy, a Jesuit priest, to rescind his resignation letter and challenge the speaker’s authority to fire him in the first place.
Ryan also wasn’t able to reach a deal over the farm legislation in time to prevent its defeat -- even though the measure includes new work requirements for food stamp recipients, an idea embraced by conservatives. In the minutes before the farm bill Ryan backed failed in a 198 to 231 vote, Ryan could be seen on the House floor talking to lieutenants, at one point burying his head in his hands.
AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Ryan, said the House has been busy acting on legislation, including bills to roll back regulations adopted under former President Barack Obama. The chamber this week will take up revisions to the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul and other measures, she said.
“The notion that the House is slowing pace is silly,” Strong said.
A GOP congressional aide who spoke on condition of anonymity said the battle over immigration would have unfolded regardless of whether Ryan announced his retirement and that Nunes acted without consulting Ryan even before he said he will be stepping down.
The revolt on immigration has been on a low boil for months.
A group of centrists shrugged off the speaker’s requests to drop a petition drive to force a floor vote on immigration legislation, including bills that would appeal to Democrats. That prompted threats from staunchly conservative Republicans to retaliate by trying to sink the farm bill unless Ryan allows a vote on their favored hard-line immigration bill instead.
Carlos Curbelo, a Republican who represents a diverse district in South Florida, said in December he would vote against the leadership’s spending bills if they didn’t first move a bill that would provide protection from deportation for immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children, along with measures to enhance border security.
Now Curbelo, tired of waiting, is ignoring Ryan’s opposition to his petition to force a floor vote on four different immigration proposals.
"The discharge petition on immigration is a sign of a weakened party leadership" that can’t enforce discipline, said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Members of the Freedom Caucus say they also were promised, in exchange for their support for a spending bill, a full House vote on a immigration legislation favored by conservatives that was proposed by Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia.
Iowa Republican Steve King, one of the most outspoken immigration opponents in Congress, said Ryan’s handling of Curbelo’s discharge petition could have consequences for his successor. Ryan has backed Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California as speaker if Republicans hang on to the majority after the midterm elections.
“If the Democrats take over the floor with a handful of Republicans that team up with them, that would be, I think, untenable for anyone to sustain a leadership position,” King said. “Especially if they have to be elected to it in the future.’’
Scott Perry, a Republican from Pennsylvania, said delaying action on immigration is another example of Ryan not following through on the promises he made when he first became speaker to let bills to go through committees with an open amendment process on the floor. Perry said he and his fellow conservatives will use their votes to make sure the next Republican leader can’t make empty promises.
“We get tired of hearing, ‘well, we’ll do that in six months -- or never,’ and then it always becomes a little too difficult to do it,” Perry said.
Republicans in both factions say Ryan’s tight control of the legislative schedule is beginning to backfire now that his lame duck status leaves him with fewer tools typically used by speakers to keep members in line. McCarthy and Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the third ranking member of the GOP leadership team, are reluctant to retaliate against rebellious members to maintain goodwill for a future speaker’s race.
“Naturally, any lame duck is not going to have as much power,” said Representative Dennis Ross, a Florida Republican, who is retiring at the end of the year.
“But you also can do things you wouldn’t normally do. He might reach across the aisle and get 50 Democrats to vote on a bill -- upsetting all of our conservative Republicans because they passed a farm bill, for instance, without them," Ross said. “But what’s more important? The speakership or the legislation?”
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