WASHINGTON — Since returning from their summer recess, House conservatives have wasted no time showing just how tough they can make life for Speaker Paul Ryan — and for Democrat Hillary Clinton, if she becomes president.
Conservatives look determined to force a vote in the coming days to impeach the head of the IRS despite deep misgivings among other Republicans about such a pre-election move.
They’re pressuring Ryan to oppose a deal taking shape in the Senate on must-pass legislation to keep the government open.
And they’re promising to keep investigating Clinton’s email issues even if she ends up in the White House. Some conservatives are even saying openly that impeachment hearings should be an option against Clinton.
“There probably ought to be,” said Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala.
Together, the dynamics underscore the competing pressures that could confront Clinton and Ryan in a new era of divided government if she beats Republican Donald Trump on Nov. 8, and Ryan, R-Wis., is re-elected speaker in January.
Their relationship faces deep constraints even before it begins, in part because of a single group of people: the several dozen deeply conservative lawmakers who are keeping Ryan on a short leash and who are among the Republicans pushing for investigations of Clinton.
“If Hillary Clinton is elected president this Congress has to reassert itself in the path that the founding fathers imagined,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. It was an echo of the frequent observation from House Republicans who lament that Congress has ceded its constitutional authority under President Barack Obama.
“If I’m Paul Ryan I would be positioning myself to assert this power that Congress legitimately has,” King added. “I would put a statement out there that we will use the power of the purse and we will stare down any president that wants to defy the will of the people, and we’re not going to be swayed by public criticism.”
For Ryan, who became speaker a year ago after his predecessor resigned under pressure from the right, such comments serve notice that conservatives will be watching closely to see how he interacts with a President Clinton.
The immediate challenge, though, is navigating the remainder of the year without alienating conservatives in the House who will be necessary for his re-election as speaker.
For now Ryan has enjoyed remarkable success in retaining the backing of these hard-to-please lawmakers, but this has required a delicate approach to some demands that establishment-aligned Republicans in his conference consider unreasonable, such as opposition to a short-term budget deal and the impeachment of John Koskinen, the Internal Revenue Service commissioner.
Conservatives say Koskinen impeded an investigation related to tea party groups seeking tax exemptions. But leadership has balked at convening impeachment proceedings, so now conservatives are threatening a procedural maneuver that would force a floor vote.
The prospect alarms other Republicans, especially those closely tracking down-ballot races.
“I think there’s a realization that that sort of action would not be helpful at this point in the campaign,” said Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, who heads the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm.
Ryan has remained neutral on the IRS impeachment and has promised to let the House work its will if it comes to a vote. He has not criticized members of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus over the plan or sought to dissuade them. Ryan and others are keenly aware that the conservative bloc is likely to be even stronger in the House next year because 10 or more House Republicans are likely to lose their seats in November, and the ones who remain will include the most conservative.
Ryan has no obvious competitor as speaker, and few expect he will face a real challenge. Yet to win re-election in a closely divided House he will be able to afford only limited defections, and some conservatives are playing coy about whether they will back him come January. “It’s too early to tell,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.
As for Clinton, the House has spent two years investigating her role in the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, when she was secretary of state and her use of a personal email server to handle sensitive information. Yet neither that expenditure of time nor the FBI’s decision not to pursue criminal charges has dimmed the desire for further investigations, including of whether Clinton lied to Congress.
“I think you investigate Hillary Clinton based on what has happened irregardless of whether she runs for president or is elected president,” Meadows said, “because it’s all about accountability.”
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