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Paul Ryan Has the Toughest Job in Washington: Avoiding a Government Shutdown

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It’s not an easy time to be House Speaker Paul Ryan. The Republican Party is fractured over immigration, and its nominal leader, President Donald Trump, is sending mixed signals with offhand comments and unscheduled tweetstorms. Hyper-partisan voices like Breitbart News only make compromise more difficult on the right.

All of this is now coming to a head as Ryan faces a Friday deadline to avert a government shutdown.

The real debate is not over whether to keep the federal government’s doors open, but what to do about the Dreamers, the immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children. Democrats, whose votes will be needed to pass the spending bill that would head off a shutdown, are demanding some form of protection for them in exchange. Republicans are split on policy but in no mood to yield on the politics.

The Trump Administration, which kicked off the debate when it ended the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that protected some 800,000 Dreamers, has sent mixed signals, only making things harder.

Rep. Roger Marshall, a first-term Republican from Western Kansas, marveled at the mess Ryan faced even among his nominal friends. “He’s got the toughest job in America,” Marshall told TIME outside the House chamber on Tuesday between briefings with Ryan about the looming shutdown threat.

When Ryan made his way to brief his colleagues about the mad dash toward a shutdown detour and the lingering unknowns about immigration and immigrants, there was little joy in his step. The man who became Speaker with deep worries about his factional caucus was, yet again, uncertain whether he could wrangle enough votes to keep avert a political crisis, and, if he couldn’t, how much it would cost to bring Democrats along.

Late Tuesday, it seemed Ryan was daring lawmakers from both parties. The outlines of another one-month included restoring funding for programs that provide health coverage for poor children for another six years, which Democrats and Republicans agree should never have lapsed. At the same time, the plan would delay in taxes on high-value insurance policies, which unions have sought. Wall Street was likely to cheer the simultaneous two-year delay for taxes on medical devices.

Even so, the slapdash proposal might run afoul of defense hawks, who want more spending, and deficit hawks, who do not. Ryan’s bet was that his offer of alternatives to immigration was too tempting to oppose in either party while buying him time to come up with something ahead of the next cliff. Almost immediately, the leader of most conservative faction of the House, the Freedom Caucus, declared the proposal D.O.A.

It’s also not clear the latest draft would fare well in the Senate, where at least some Democratic support will be needed. It’s not even clear if Republicans themselves would be unified on the contours of this new offer in the Senate, where they have a 51-49 advantage. On Wednesday morning, the number-two Republican in the Senate, John Cornyn of Texas, was urging colleagues to sidestep a comprehensive immigration effort because the President would not sign it.

If a deal can’t be reached, the Republican Party will make an ignominious kind of history: Never before has the GOP controlled the levers of power in Washington and remained unable to keep the government running. The costs would be real. New applications for business loans, mortgages, Social Security and passports would be put on hold. Government statistics on the economy would be delayed, perhaps undoing the gains Wall Street has seen in a year-long rally. The last government shutdown, in 2013, was at least a $20 billion drag on the economy.

In the past, Republicans have avoided a crisis by simply kicking the can down the road, in the oft-used aphorism for inaction, putting off passing a comprehensive funding bill three times since September and opting instead for short-term continuing resolutions. But that tactic may not work any more.

If it comes to pass, a government shutdown would damage the Republican brand. In previous shutdowns, some blame could be spread around since the opposition party controlled at least one lever of government. Even then, the deep backlash to a shutdown hurt the party in control of the White House, in part because voters think of the presidency as all-powerful. With complete control of Washington this time, Republicans will have nowhere to hide.

That has fueled a deep sense of fatalism among Republicans. When they left Washington in late December, many hung onto hopes that 2018 might break with history, that this could become just the fourth midterm election in the last century when the party in the White House actually gained seats. Instead, House Republicans came back passing around a CNN column that is far drearier: the party that holds the White House loses an average of 40 seats in midterm elections when the president’s popularity drops below 50%, and Trump’s stands in the high 30s. Gallup notes that no president among the last five has seen his standing improve in a midterm year. History could be made this fall, but not for the reasons Republicans liked.

Adding to Republicans’ frustrations is the fact Democrats now seem more willing to shut this down than before. When the question of protecting Dreamers or closing the government came to the Senate on Dec. 7, seven Democrats and their sometimes ally Bernie Sanders said they’d rather shut down the government than put off help for DACA recipients. That tally rose to 30 on Dec. 21 when Congress was asked again to punt the question to January. Pressure on lawmakers has only increased, especially as the well-organized Dreamers and their allies have make clear the political costs of inaction.

It’s gotten tougher in the House, too. On the first vote to keep the government open in December, 18 Republicans opposed the stopgap spending measure. That number rose to 51 on the second round. The federal government would have closed the doors just before Christmas had 69 Democrats not crossed party lines to bail out Ryan — but they did so with expectations their leverage would buy them more power when they came back from the holidays.

“They needed us to manage their caucus for them,” says Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff and veteran adviser, Drew Hammill. “What it really takes is a strong leader to get this done.”

Preserving DACA has support among voters in both parties, including a slim margin among the President’s supporters. Republicans, if they’re being honest, have no real issue with the young people; the fear is with their right flank because any sort of “amnesty” is seen by the base as weakness on immigration and crime, which in turn leads to losses in Republican primaries.

Republicans almost universally blame Trump for creating this no-win situation. As the year began, Trump threw open the White House doors to bipartisan talks about immigration in an unprecedented move and said he wanted “a bill of love” that protected Dreamers. He promised to sign into law whatever Congress sent him. (“It got great reviews by everybody,” the President said of his performance a day later in the same Cabinet Room, which he now dubbed a “studio.”)

But by the end of the week, Trump was reversing himself, blaming Democrats for a potential shutdown because they wanted “Amnesty,” demanding “a great WALL” and creating new nicknames, including one for Democrat “Dicky Durbin.” Complicating matters more were the President’s alleged slur against immigrants from African countries and Haitians — “shithole” countries, most news organizations reported, although others reported it was actually “shithouse,” which hardly seems an improvement. White House aides debated which word was used among themselves.

White House officials vacillated between denying the reports, criticizing the lawmakers who shared the private conversation, bragging about how the profanity will play with the GOP base and insisting that allies in the room deny it. As the drama hit Day Six, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders dug even deeper, questioning why NBC hired such a potty-mouthed host of a reality show in the 1990s if he were so profane, or why Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, asked him for long-ago campaign contributions if he were so racist.

Republicans only shook their heads at the inconsistency. “He said ‘love,’” Graham said Tuesday as he questioned Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen. “I don’t know where they guy went, but I want him back.” Graham, who is among the Republicans’ leading efforts on immigration, scarcely hid his frustration: “This has turned into an s-show.”

Outside the hearing, Graham did little to mask his frustrations about a potential shutdown over an inability to resolve the DACA question. “We should all be kicked out if that happens,” Graham said.

It’s easy to summon sympathy for Ryan, the small-town idealist who came to Washington as a Hill staffer determined to shrink government and taxes. Now in a job his friends say he did not want, he is struggling to manage his flanks. Members from the conservative- and libertarian-leaning Freedom Caucus insist on ideological purity, bordering on anarchy, in keeping with the fading Tea Party movement needle him. So, too, do the members from the coasts who know they’ll pay the price for last year’s tax cuts that strip voters in high-tax states abilities to deduct their state and local bills.

Ryan is mindful of both flanks. It was the Freedom Caucus, after all, that orchestrated the ouster against former Speaker John Boehner in 2015, an effort aided in part by Boehner’s fellow Ohioan, Rep. Jim Jordan, a cofounder of the Freedom Caucus. (“A terrorist. A legislative terrorist,” Boehner described Jordan in a recent Politico Magazine profile.)

In September, after Trump publicly sided with Democrats over his own party to cut a budget deal, rumors surfaced that Jordan, Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows and other House conservatives were talking behind closed doors about challenging Ryan’s leadership. Ryan and his office firmly denounced the allegations. And as the year ended, Ryan was again rumored to be plotting a strategy that left it all on the table and ready to leave Congress with no regrets. Again, Ryan’s allies firmly denied the story.

The sheer fact of these rumors rose spoke to a nervousness about whether Ryan had the ability to overpower and outlast his critics without victories like the package of tax cuts—wins, it turns out, that proved unpopular with his moderates and the middle-class voters who are convinced their taxes are going up because of their tax bill.

In the days preceding the latest funding deadline, conservative Republicans seemed frustrated with the process of things. “We’ve heard more about the proposal from y’all than we have from our leadership at this point,” Meadows told a group of reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday evening before the latest Ryan compromise emerged.

“We are where we are,” Meadows said. “We’ll see what gets offered.”

A few hours later, Meadows was telling reporters that Ryan lacked the support to pass a party-line continuing resolution.

Meanwhile, lawmakers from both parties recognized what this meant for Democrats’ power, even in the minority.

“You’re all quick enough at math to know that if Democrats hadn’t overwhelmingly voted for the [continuing resolution] in September, it would not have passed,” the House’s No. 2 Democrat, Steny Hoyer, said forebodingly on Tuesday. The Democrats spared the Republicans in December, but now they have demands. Hoyer declined to say if his party would play hardball and allow a shutdown if the funding solution didn’t contain an immigration fix, but stressed that “it needs to be in the C.R.”

Ryan now finds himself in a bind: pursue a bipartisan solution—which would be more in line with his own political tendencies—or acquiesce to the threat of growing discord in his own ranks and rewrite a spending plan that’s even more conservative. Rather than entertaining a DACA compromise, House conservatives are clamoring for a vote on a hardline immigration bill that builds walls and ignores Dreamers. Ryan is not endorsing their gambit, but also knew he has hours, not weeks, to find 218 yay votes to keep open the government. Either way, he knows there will be a tough backdraft, and perhaps an anchor on his party’s already dour hopes this fall.

— With reporting by Molly Ball in Washington.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly described the history of government shutdowns. This was the first time the Republican Party controlled the White House and Congress during a government shutdown; the Democratic Party did so previously under President Carter.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com