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Paul Ryan wants to be speaker on his terms. But he needs to cut a deal.

The next US House speaker will have bargain to get to 218 votes. Will it be with Dems or with the House Freedom Caucus?

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) speaks following a meeting of House Republicans at the US Capitol.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) speaks following a meeting of House Republicans at the US Capitol.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Paul Ryan has announced that he will run for speaker, but only on his terms. His terms are that everybody in the Republican caucus get behind him, now and for the rest of the session of Congress, and give him the authority and power to run the show.

The tea leaves suggest this will be unlikely. There is plenty of rumbling among House Freedom members and fellow travelers that they are not about to take his take-it-or-leave-it offer. After all, there is really very little for them in it. And they've come this far, having already forced the departure of Boehner. Why give in now? It's not like compromise is a cherished value among these fighters. Quite the opposite.

So assuming Ryan doesn't get the unified (or near unified) support among his caucus that he wants, this would leave Ryan (or whomever else wants to be speaker) with two options to get to the 218 votes one needs to be speaker.

  1. Cut a deal with the Democrats.
  2. Cut a deal with the House Freedom Caucus.

Cut a deal with Democrats

Given that there may be no way to placate the House Freedom Caucus, Ryan could still be elected speaker if he could cut a deal with the 188 Democrats to win a safe number of their votes. Maybe this would mean some agreements over spending and budget cuts, including agreeing to keep the government running and from defaulting on its debt. Maybe it would mean bringing up a few Democratic bills every now and then and giving Dems some opportunity to amend bills on the floor.

In so doing, Ryan could marginalize the House Freedom Caucus. Of course, he'd also further invoke their ire (which he already seems to be doing). But if he does want to run for president someday, bringing Democrats and Republicans together in the House would be a pretty strong claim to proving he could also unite the country. It would be a hell of a presidential thing to do.

Yes, a bipartisan speaker would be unlikely. But as I've written already, it might be less unlikely than you think. For all the talk of Republicans facing primary threats to the right, the truth is that very few actually face primary challenges. Eric Cantor was only one of three Republican incumbents to lose in a primary in 2014, and for the past few cycles, only a dozen or so squeak by in their primaries with less than 60 percent of the vote.

Yes, I know members of Congress are risk-averse. But if Congress can't function because it is being held hostage to a take-no-prisoners faction, what good is being a member of Congress anyway? At least as an investment banker or a lobbyist, you can make some real money.

Cut a deal with the House Freedom Caucus

As I wrote yesterday, I do think the House Freedom Caucus has some worthwhile ideas on process. Like them, I do think the House would ultimately run better if power were more decentralized, if more bills actually worked their way through the traditional committee process, and if there were more opportunities for rank-and-file members to participate, including amending bills on the floor.

I know this would produce more chaos, and, yes, it would empower House Freedom Caucus members to participate more and perhaps throw even more bombs into the process. But I'm hopeful that out of the chaos some new, bipartisan coalitions might emerge. If the House operated in a more truly majoritarian fashion, the HFC would have much less power — if they brought some of their positions up for a vote of the entire House, they'd lose. Maybe I'm overly optimistic. But what we have now sure isn't working, so I think we need to at least experiment with something else.

More broadly, as I wrote in more detail in my longer piece on this topic, we've seen four decades of centralizing leadership in the House, which has enforced more party discipline. The cost of this is that rank-and-file members have been more and more alienated from their responsibilities, and divisions within the parties have been suppressed.

But that is not a sustainable situation. At this point, a more stable situation would involve giving more members a stake in the process and allowing some of those tensions to come to the surface. It may produce more chaos in the short term. But in the long term, I'm optimistic it will produce more stability by allowing new governing coalitions to emerge.

Of course, no speaker wants to willingly give up power, so I don't expect Ryan or anybody else to agree to these demands. Also, most of the House Freedom Caucus does not appear truly genuine about a truly open process. Despite the claims about openness, they also want a speaker to maintain the Hastert Rule (only bringing bills to the floor with a majority of Republican support) and to punish Republicans who sign discharge petitions (bringing bills to the floor that are bottled up in committee), two demands that go against the free-flowing process they claim to advocate. So just giving in to the sensible demands would probably not win the support of the House Freedom Caucus.

Now what?

Perhaps Republicans will unify behind Ryan's conditions. But I'm still skeptical. The House Freedom Caucus has come this far. Why give in now? Certainly, the early returns are not positive.

I agree with my colleague Ezra Klein that "Ryan should hope he doesn't get the job." There's really no way Ryan (or anybody else) can be a unifying figure given the current insurgencies in the Republican Party at this point, at least not without neutering much of his own power.

So Ryan, or whoever else comes along after him, will have to choose: make a deal with Democrats, or make a deal with the House Freedom Caucus.

If the deal with the House Freedom Caucus were to decentralize power in a sensible way, I'd say that's the better deal to make for the long-term stability of the House. But that's probably not the case. The House Freedom Caucus wants it all. And therefore, ultimately it will get nothing. Making a deal with Democrats is probably the best way forward.