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Paul Ryan became the 54th speaker of the U.S. House on Thursday in a day of high political theater, a young new leader for a fractured Congress, charged with healing Republican divides and quieting the chaos of Capitol Hill.
“Let’s prove ourselves worthy,” Ryan urged from the House dais where he was sworn into the job, second in line to the presidency, after an extraordinary month of unrest for Congress.
“Let’s be frank: The House is broken,” Ryan declared. “We are not settling scores. We are wiping the slate clean.”
As Ryan spoke, senators across the Capitol were preparing to cast votes on a broad two-year budget and debt deal that passed the House on Wednesday, engineered largely by outgoing Speaker John Boehner to allow Ryan a fresh start with the toughest issues resolved.
The measure was expected to clear an initial legislative hurdle well after midnight in a dead-of-night vote resulting from the Senate’s convoluted legislative timetables and delaying tactics by opponents. Many in the GOP majority planned to vote “no,” including presidential candidates Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, who canceled campaign events to rush back to Washington to oppose it.
Ryan, 45, the Republicans’ 2012 vice presidential nominee, was elected speaker in a rare, live roll-call vote on the House floor, with each lawmaker standing in turn to declare his choice. The mood mixed solemnity with levity, as Boehner, driven into resignation by GOP strife, brandished a box of tissues and repeatedly neared tears, while some lawmakers shouted their votes almost joyously.
“California cheese-heads for Paul D. Ryan!” declared one Western lawmaker, Doug LaMalfa, getting behind the Wisconsin congressman.
The final tally showed 236 votes for Ryan, 184 for Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, the Democrats’ candidate, and nine for Republican Daniel Webster of Florida.
Webster had been the choice of a group of hardcore conservatives who have repeatedly made trouble for GOP leaders. But in the end most Republicans swung behind Ryan, underscoring the strong desire of nearly all members for a fresh start after years of conflict and GOP infighting.
With his wife and three kids from Janesville, Wisconsin, watching on from the gallery, along with presidential running mate Mitt Romney, Ryan accepted the gavel from Pelosi and pledged a new day for the Congress. And without directly mentioning them or the troubles they’ve caused, he promised to bring the GOP’s rebels back into the fold.
“We need to let every member contribute — not once they have earned their stripes but right now,” Ryan said. “Open up the process. Let people participate. And they might change their tune. A neglected minority will gum up the works. A respected minority will work in good faith.”
Boehner, who started life as an Ohio bartender’s son with 11 siblings, delivered an emotional farewell address marveling, “This, too, can really happen to you.”
Boehner’s parting gift to Ryan was the budget deal revealed Monday night after secretive negotiations among congressional leaders and the White House. After years of brinkmanship over the budget and the debt ceiling, the deal will raise the government’s borrowing limit, averting a market-shattering default just days from now, as well as set budget levels for two years, though it will be up to congressional spending committees and Speaker Ryan to fill in the details with a package of detailed bills by early December.
Ryan’s swearing-in came almost exactly a month after Boehner shocked the House by revealing his plans to resign from Congress at the end of October. He said he had no appetite for a floor vote on his speakership threatened by conservatives, who contended he was yielding to President Barack Obama in a government shutdown fight over Planned Parenthood.
Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy was Boehner’s likeliest successor, but was quickly undone by a gaffe suggesting the House’s special Benghazi committee was set up to drive down Hillary Rodham Clinton’s poll numbers.
Party leaders turned to Ryan, who had sworn off a run, preferring to continue as chairman of the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. They argued that no other House Republican commanded his national profile, ability to unite and telegenic knack for communicating conservative ideas.
Ryan relented, agreeing to seek the job on condition he be allowed to cut back on fundraising responsibilities spend time with his family and be assured the support of all major factions of the House GOP, including the hardline Freedom Caucus.
Now he begins to serve with the burden of those groups’ expectations.
Ryan started off on a strong footing with Thursday’s vote of confidence. But conservatives served notice that they will be watching to make sure he delivers on his commitments of a House more open to all.
Said Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia. “I have invested a lot of faith in Speaker Ryan’s word, and I will expect nothing less than a full return on that investment.”