Paul Ryan never wanted to be speaker of the House, and Wednesday was a perfect example of why. The guy who made his reputation as the Republicans’ wonk-in-chief as chairman of the Budget Committee and then, briefly, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, started the day expecting to spend a good chunk of it talking about the GOP’s new plan to replace the Obama administration’s signature domestic policy achievement, the Affordable Care Act.
Things didn’t go as planned.
Ryan was able to deliver his scheduled remarks Wednesday afternoon, but much of the remainder of his day was dedicated to addressing issues that were not remotely related to what he had hoped would drive the day’s coverage.
Late Wednesday morning, Democratic lawmakers staged a “sit-in” on the floor of the House of Representatives. Led by legendary civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), dozens of Democrats at a time sat in the well of the House chamber aiming to prevent action on anything until Republican leadership allowed a vote on a proposal to bar individuals on the government’s no-fly list from purchasing firearms.
This was a no-win situation for Ryan from the start. Gun control is a complicated and emotionally-charged issue, particularly in the wake of an apparent terror attack that killed and wounded 100 people in Orlando barely a week ago. Democrats are pushing for action on proposal that has enormous public support on a superficial level -- who doesn’t want to block suspected terrorists from buying guns? -- but is really far more complex than it seems.
The government’s no-fly list is notoriously flawed. Large numbers of people who should never have been put on it have found themselves not only prevented from flying, but nearly helpless to have themselves removed from the list. This creates obvious constitutional problems for proposals to use a person’s appearance on the list as evidence in a case for denying them the right to buy a firearm.
This put Ryan in the awkward position of having to refuse the Democrats a vote on a popular proposal, made worse by his decision to declare their sit-in a “publicity stunt.”
Then, remarkably, his day got worse. He appeared on CNN for an interview and host Wolf Blitzer asked him a question that in a normal time would be so silly that laughter would have been the only reasonable response.
“Do you trust Donald Trump?” Blitzer asked.
Ryan did, at least, laugh. But this isn’t a normal time. Instead of saying that of course he trusts his party’s presumptive nominee, he wriggled like a fish on a hook, refusing to commit to what most people would probably consider the most fundamental prerequisite for supporting a presidential candidate.
About the best he could manage was to say that whether or not he trusts Trump “depends on the issue.”
Endorsements don’t come more tepid than that.
Around 10:30 Wednesday evening, Ryan and his fellow Republicans returned to the House floor in an effort to conduct business over the jeers, shouts, and singing of the Democrats. Rather than exercise his right, as speaker, to have the Democratic lawmakers removed from the floor, Ryan simply talked over them, taking the House in and out of recess several times and conducting votes on various pieces of legislation despite the protests.
At different points, arguments became heated. Colleagues stepped between Republican Louie Gohmert of Texas and the Democratic protesters during one exchange, out of concern that a shouting match would escalate further. Republican Don Young of Alaska was similarly restrained by colleagues and aides.
The spectacle reached its climax after 3 a.m., when after forcing a controversial vote on an appropriations bill that included funding for the fight against the Zika virus, Ryan declared the House adjourned until July 5. The Republican majority's published calendar had indicated that the House would remain in session through Thursday, and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, declared the retreat "cowardly." Some Democrats remained on the floor in protest, while others vowed to continue the sit-in when lawmakers return in July.
AshLee Strong, spokeswoman for Ryan, countered, "Democrats can continue to talk, but the reality is that they have no end-game strategy...The Senate has already defeated the measure they're calling for. The House is focused on eliminating terrorists, not constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens. And no stunts on the floor will change that."