House Republicans divided as Speaker Paul Ryan struggles to keep clout

WASHINGTON — Seven months before his planned retirement, House Speaker Paul Ryan is facing growing disruption among the GOP ranks, raising fresh questions about his ability to lead a divided group of Republicans through a tough election season.

Ryan sought to quell infighting Tuesday, dashing back to Washington from Wisconsin and abandoning plans for family time at home, as he tried to unify the factions and reassert control over the majority.

In remarks to reporters, the speaker acknowledged restlessness among Republican lawmakers and argued an internal election to replace him at the helm would be a distraction. For now, he told reporters, "We all agree the best thing for us is to complete our agenda and not wedge into the middle of the completion of our agenda a divisive leadership election."

Ryan's job leading the rambunctious House Republicans has never been easy, but it has become more difficult since he turned himself into a lame-duck speaker by announcing he won't seek re-election to Congress in the fall. The move immediately prompted questions about whether his status would undermine his efforts to set a legislative agenda and jeopardize Republican hopes of holding on the House majority in November's midterm elections. Those questions intensified in recent days after Ryan tried and failed to pass a farm bill — a casualty of an unrelated immigration standoff.

Over the weekend, a top cabinet official mused openly about replacing Ryan. Republicans are publicly at odds, blaming one another for squandering the waning time before the elections.

It's not at all clear how much longer Ryan will be able to stick around as planned, despite his ability to raise large sums for Republican re-election campaigns.

Behind closed doors at Tuesday's meeting, the speaker made a plea for GOP unity, expressed his own frustrations over their divisions and encouraged Republicans to work together to rack up legislative accomplishments, according to lawmakers at the meeting who asked for anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the private talks.

Ryan received a standing ovation, according to one person who attended.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, said Republicans don't want Ryan to leave, but they want him to lead. "Nobody I know is pressuring Paul Ryan to step aside. We just want results," Barton said.

Barton said that with the largest House majority in almost a century, Republicans have their best chance before the midterms, when their numbers are likely to shrink. "If we really want to accomplish things there is no better time than right now," he said.

The latest dustup is a familiar one, pitting the conservative House Freedom Caucus against more moderate Republicans over what to do on immigration.

But for some lawmakers, the details hardly matter anymore. They are expressing their own sense of rebellion fatigue, tired of the almost unending churn of leadership power struggles and factional infighting that have become the norm among the House GOP.

Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., who is retiring rather than seeking re-election in fall, said it makes sense to revisit the leadership issue after "things blow up" as they did Friday over the immigration dispute. "But things blow up every couple of weeks around here."

Speaking a weekend conference sponsored by The Weekly Standard, Mick Mulvaney, the former congressman now heading the White House budget office, mused openly about a leadership race that would force Democrats to have to say whether or not they support Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader.

Mulvaney's spokeswoman said he was not working behind the scenes for an early speaker's race, but rather was "supportive of any ideas that unite Republicans and divide Democrats."

The Republican next in line for Ryan's job, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has not yet secured the votes needed to become leader, Republicans say, ensuring a messy battle if early elections were held now.

Rank-and-file lawmakers say they have no interest in facing two rounds of leadership elections — one now and another after the midterm election — with each race giving the GOP factions another opportunity to extract demands before giving their support.

"You want to do it twice?" asked Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif.

For now, the choices ahead for Ryan are fraught with problems as he tries to resolve the standoff over immigration, an issue that has long divided Republicans.

On the one side are moderate Republicans who are close to having the signatures necessary to force a vote on their bill to provide a citizenship path for "Dreamers" — young immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children.

On the other is the Freedom Caucus, which will reject any bill they perceive as amnesty for immigrants here illegally.

Ryan could simply allow the "Dreamer" bill to proceed. It would probably pass the House with support from most Democrats and some centrist Republicans.

But in doing so, he would violate a promise made to the Freedom Caucus when he was first securing their votes to become speaker. Then, he said he would not bring forward immigration legislation unless it had support from most members in the GOP majority. The Freedom Caucus could threaten a procedural move to oust Ryan — as it did his predecessor, John Boehner — though it's unclear such threats matter to Ryan at this point.

President Donald Trump has been of little help.

President Trump initially said he wanted to do something "nice" to help the Dreamers, but the White House has since tacked on a growing list of demands beyond Trump's funding for the border wall with Mexico.

Last week, after Ryan and GOP leaders rushed to the White House to enlist President Trump's help, they returned to the floor chaos as the farm bill was defeated over the immigration dispute.

Ryan says a bipartisan bill will never get President Trump's signature, and he doesn't want to pursue any bill unless it can become law. That leaves him few options.

On Tuesday, lawmakers said they were told to expect votes in mid-June on some immigration legislation as Ryan and his leadership team, including McCarthy, try to cobble together a compromise that would win Republican support. But that remains far off.

Just two months ago, Ryan announced he would step down, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. Tuesday was his youngest son's eighth-grade graduation, and officials said he intended to dart back home to Wisconsin later Tuesday evening to be there for it.