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Paul Ryan announces he's running for speaker — despite not getting everything he wanted

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Rep. Paul Ryan announced Thursday night that he will run to succeed John Boehner as speaker of the House — and he's the overwhelming favorite to win.

"I pledged to you that if I could be a unifying figure, then I would serve," Ryan wrote in a letter to his House Republican colleagues. "After talking with so many of you, and hearing your words of encouragement, I believe we are ready to move forward as a one, united team. And I am ready and eager to be our speaker."

After Kevin McCarthy surprised everyone by dropping out of the speaker's race two weeks ago, Republican elites positively begged Ryan to run for the job. They viewed him as the only House member who had the credibility to unite mainstream Republicans and far-right conservatives.

Ryan was reluctant, but eventually responded to these pleas — and on Tuesday, he laid out a set of conditions he said were necessary for him to run for speaker. These conditions included requests to preserve his family time and to let him "use the platform to create a clear policy choice for the country." There appear to have been few objections to these.

But he made two more demands that weren't quite met. First, he said that he'd only run if he got the endorsement of all three GOP caucuses. He got two of them, and almost got the third — winning support from a supermajority of the far-right Freedom Caucus, but not the 80 percent necessary for its official endorsement. Still, he very nearly got there, and what he did get was an impressive display that cements his claim to be a unity candidate.

But Ryan hasn't yet weakened the Freedom Caucus's most powerful weapon

Perhaps more consequentially, Ryan didn't win official agreement on one of his other major demands — that the House rules should be changed to make it much more difficult to challenge the speaker's leadership in the middle of a House term.

This refers to an obscure procedure — a motion to "vacate" the speaker's post — that can be invoked to force an effective vote of no confidence in the speaker, and require him to line up 218 votes to keep his job. "No matter who is speaker, they cannot be successful with this weapon pointed at them all the time," Ryan's Tuesday statement said.

Yet this would have removed 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. Conversely, if this threat weren't available, the speaker would find it easier to ignore the far right.

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 quickly clarified that he didn't want to eliminate this procedure entirely — he just wanted, he said, to modify it in some unspecified way, to make it more difficult to use in the middle of a term. And at least some members of the Freedom Caucus reportedly voiced openness to such an idea when Ryan spoke to them.

But according to a report by Politico's Lauren French and Jake Sherman, there's been no formal agreement on whether to make any change at all. Instead, Ryan has agreed to delay the debate, and discuss the changes he wants as part of a broader overhaul of House rules. This could theoretically make it easier for him to offer some rules changes that the Freedom Caucus wants in exchange for a concession from them on the motion to vacate. Or it could just be a punt.

Still, the fact that a supermajority of the Freedom Caucus is backing Ryan for speaker makes it seem that they're not going to use this weapon against him anytime soon. So further reforms will be a problem for later.

For now, Ryan is officially in the speaker's race, and he faces only nominal opposition from Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida so far. An internal GOP conference vote on the speakership is scheduled for Wednesday, October 28, and a full floor vote is scheduled for the following day.

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