Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell Try to Keep the Peace

The two Republican leaders need to balance ambition and caution in a volatile election year in Congress.

Andrew Harnik / AP

There are a great number of things that separate the two most powerful Republicans in Congress.

House Speaker Paul Ryan is 45, earnest and energetic, a fitness buff and self-described policy wonk. He publicly spurned the speakership until his party came begging, seeking the post only once his decision to do so would seem like an act of sacrifice. Since then, he’s made it part of his job to be a fixture on television, putting a smart, sunny face on modern conservatism to try to repair a tarnished Republican brand.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is, at 73, more than a generation older than Ryan, but the job he holds is the one he’s always wanted. He’s guarded, sometimes even taciturn, granting interviews only when he has a specific message to deliver. McConnell’s a dealmaker, but his passion is politics, not policy.

There are plenty of differences between the two men, but the one that matters most right now is when they assumed their current positions. McConnell became majority leader a year ago and immediately set a clear goal: He wanted to make the Senate function, pass bills, and show constituents that a legislative body universally condemned as dysfunctional could govern under Republican control. As even Democrats begrudgingly acknowledged, he did that. The GOP majority generally avoided crisis in 2015, and the Senate cleared bipartisan agreements on education, infrastructure, taxes, and spending. McConnell deserves credit, even if Democrats rightly complain that the deals were only there for the taking because of Republican obstruction when they were in charge.

Having pocketed those victories, McConnell wants to take it easy in 2016. Needing to protect his four-seat majority in a challenging election year for Senate Republicans, he simply wants the Senate to pass a dozen appropriations bills— a significant assignment, but one that by his own admission won’t “titillate the public.” McConnell’s a guy who fixes the leaky sink, dusts off his hands, and just wants to sit down with a cold beer (or in his case, Kentucky bourbon.)

The trouble for McConnell is that here comes Paul Ryan.

Ryan didn’t become speaker a year ago. He only took over from John Boehner in November, and spent the rest of the year finishing up his predecessor’s work. He’s still proving himself—both to his raucous party and to the public—and he sees 2016 as a critical “year of ideas,” one in which Republicans must lay the groundwork for a GOP administration and build a mandate to enact conservative reform next year. “Our number-one goal for the next year,” Ryan said last month, “is to put together a complete alternative to the Left’s agenda.”

In other words, Ryan wants House Republicans to do much more than pass spending bills. He wants the party to develop a long-awaited replacement for Obamacare, comprehensive tax reform, and an anti-poverty agenda, to name just a few items on his wish list. For the young speaker, there’s much less risk in overreaching, given that hardly anyone believes the House GOP majority is in jeopardy. The Senate is a different story.

Normally, having an ambitious House speaker and a cautious Senate majority leader would be a recipe for conflict, especially between two chambers with a long history of animosity regardless of party control. And as Republicans gathered on Thursday in Baltimore for their annual policy retreat, there were hints of that tension in their public events. “It is a competition of ideas,” was how Senator John Thune described it to reporters. While Ryan talked up the House’s bold plans, Thune said lawmakers were aware “it’s an even-numbered year” and noted that the looming election “always make it a bit more challenging.” “People tend to go into their respective corners,” Thune observed.

Yet Ryan's goal of pursuing a conservative agenda and McConnell's priority of defending his most vulnerable senators aren’t mutually exclusive, as long as expectations are properly managed. Republicans often faulted Boehner for over-promising and under-delivering. Ryan, by contrast, has been careful about pledging just how far he intends to go. The point, he has said, is not to pass a bunch of bills this year—everyone knows President Obama would veto them. Rather, he wants to develop the ideas that the party’s presidential nominee can then use as a platform to campaign on. “We like to think of the House and the Senate at this time as really being the think tank for conservative policy,” said Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the chairwoman of the House Republican conference.

House committees might develop aggressive healthcare, tax, and welfare plans, but that doesn’t mean they’ll all receive votes on the floor. And even if the House does pass some of them, the more cautious Senate is likely to shelve them until 2017, when Republicans hope to have the votes to pass them, and a GOP president to sign them. There will still be some political pain. Democrats will undoubtedly mock Republicans if they don’t follow through on their plans, and they’ll campaign against them if they do. And some House Republicans will inevitably complain if McConnell slow-walks bills they pass. But for two leaders with different styles and different priorities, this delicate election-year dance might be the only way to hold the fractious Republican Party together.