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Parsing The House Speakership Drama

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

After much to-ing and fro-ing, it looks like Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan has the support he needs from his own party to be speaker of the House. It's probably the highest profile job that so few people seem to really want. But Ryan is believed to be the only one who can unite House Republicans. For more on what a Ryan speakership might look like, we are joined by Reihan Salam. He's the executive editor of National Review. Thanks so much for being with us.

REIHAN SALAM: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So this is my question, though. The House Freedom Caucus - this is the group of 40 or so conservative Republicans who basically forced Boehner out - they want more power. They want power to get legislation introduced and more say in how committee chairs are selected. Has Ryan signed off on that?

SALAM: Well, he has assured them that he is going to listen to them carefully and that he values their contributions. As to specifics, that's another matter entirely. But when you're looking at the leadership of the Republicans, one of the main tools that they have is determining who gets desirable committee assignments.

Because a lot of the power that party leaders used to have - you know, earmarks and what have you - they just don't have as much of that power. So this is one of the last tools they can have to really ensure that the party is moving in the same direction. So my sense is that they're going to be reluctant to give away much more of that power.

MARTIN: But ultimately they want, as I understand it, the speaker of the House to have less power. Is that something that's going to hamstring Paul Ryan in the way he can run Congress effectively?

SALAM: Well, one of the things that Paul Ryan wanted to make clear is this - he did not want to be completely vulnerable the whole time that he's in this office. So I think that one thing that might emerge is this - some agreement that, look, for the next 15 months, give me some breathing room. After that time, if I do not realize the goals we've set out together, then you can hold me accountable.

But I'm not going to be able to do anything at all if I'm constantly looking over my shoulder. So I think that that's something that I think is going to appeal to a fair number of members. And again, the House Freedom Caucus - you know, 70 percent of those members are with him right now, partly because they see, I think, that they might have overplayed their hand.

MARTIN: How do you see this in the big picture? Is the party facing an existential crisis or is all of this likely to make the party stronger going into this election and beyond?

SALAM: My personal view is that Republicans in Congress have been doing the more expedient thing. So, for example, in 2014, they ran in this very vague kind of way without actually running on some kind of policy agenda. And what it means is that you're making big promises. So for a lot of conservatives, they thought, hey, you know, we finally have these Republican majorities. You know, we should be getting a lot.

Well, look, that can't really happen. You can't govern the country just from Congress. So, you know, because they didn't actually have a well-defined agenda, you wind up actually having this grave disappointment in the grassroots. So I think that that's been a big problem. And the question now is can Paul Ryan actually give Republicans in Congress and Republicans in the House that sense of direction?

MARTIN: Do you think he can?

SALAM: I think that he has demonstrated the ability to unite Republicans in the past, particularly if you're looking at entitlement reform, for example. I mean, Paul Ryan's Medicare reform proposal is something that was really quite remarkable, uniting lots of Republicans who, you know, really want to be re-elected. He managed to pull that off. Now, since then, he's tried to build a consensus on a few other things, for example, crafting a replacement for Obamacare, and he has not succeeded in doing that.

But I do think that what Paul Ryan has that others don't - that John Boehner didn't - is that people believe that he's a conservative true believer and that he might want to make some pragmatic accommodation here or there, but that ultimately that's the direction he wants to move in. He's with us on the core issues.

MARTIN: Reihan Salam is the executive editor of National Review. Thanks so much.

SALAM: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.