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Paul Ryan will run for speaker — but only if the far right agrees to unilaterally disarm

Paul Ryan, earlier in October.
Paul Ryan, earlier in October.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty

On Tuesday night, Rep. Paul Ryan announced that he'll run for speaker of the House — if he gets the endorsement of every major Republican caucus by this Friday, and they agree to sign on to rules changes making it much harder for the far right to depose the speaker in the middle of a session.

In a meeting with his House Republican colleagues, Ryan laid out several conditions that he'd want in exchange for taking the job. According to a statement issued by Ryan's office, he said:

  • That the next speaker should be "visionary" and "needs to use the platform to create a clear policy choice for the country"
  • That rules should be changed to make it much more difficult to challenge the speaker's leadership in the middle of a House term
  • That he wanted to spend "less time on the road" (meaning less than the three weekends a month Boehner spends fundraising)
  • And that the next speaker should be "a unifying figure across the conference"

The last of those is particularly important. The statement from Ryan's office says he will only run "if he is a unity candidate — with the endorsement of all the conference's major caucuses," and that members should "make clear whether they support" him by Friday.

The ball is in the Freedom Caucus's court now

There's already widespread support for Ryan among the party's mainstream and even among most conservatives — for instance, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who was running for speaker himself, tweeted tonight that he's endorsing Ryan (meaning he'd drop out of the race if Ryan runs).

So in effect, Ryan's conditions mean that his decision hinges on whether the Freedom Caucus — the secretive far-right group of about 40 Republicans that supports hard-line tactics, and has plagued House leadership all year — chooses to back him.

This is important because for anyone to be elected speaker of the House, he or she needs to win a majority vote in the entire chamber. And since, in practice, the vote is always partisan, that means the winning candidate needs to get a huge supermajority of his or her caucus — 88 percent for a Republican candidate this year:

Javier Zarracina / Vox

That means that if the Freedom Caucus's members voted as a bloc on the floor — and it wasn't yet clear that they would — they would have had the power to prevent a Republican candidate they don't like from getting those necessary 218 votes.

So Ryan is telling the recalcitrants, in effect, "Get behind me now — before the floor vote — or I won't bother running, and good luck with whoever the other candidates turn out to be."

And Ryan is asking for the Freedom Caucus to unilaterally disarm

Ryan's demands might be difficult for the Freedom Caucus to accept. Particularly, he's requested that the House rules be changed to limit a motion to "vacate" the speaker's post — an effective vote of no confidence requiring the speaker to win those 218 floor votes again — from being offered mid-session. "No matter who is speaker, they cannot be successful with this weapon pointed at them all the time," his statement says.

This would remove one of the Freedom Caucus's main points of leverage. Currently, any speaker can be deposed in the middle of the year simply by losing support of a few dozen of his or her party's most extreme members. So if the far right seems willing to use this threat, the speaker currently has a huge incentive to cater to their demands.

Indeed, one of the main reasons John Boehner is resigning is because a Freedom Caucus member, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), was trying to bring a motion to vacate the chair to the floor. Boehner knew he had the support of the vast majority of his caucus, yet keeping enough of the far right to win a floor vote when he was being criticized for not fighting hard enough to defund Planned Parenthood would have been a difficult challenge.

Ryan has reportedly said that he has no interest in negotiating with the Freedom Caucus. So if that remains true, then it's not yet clear whether (or why) those hard-line conservatives would agree to surrender this leverage.

Indeed, take a look at some of the reactions in the hours after Ryan's announcement: