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GOP senators welcome leadership from House Speaker

Senate Republicans on Thursday opened their arms to an ambitious set of proposals rolled out this week by House Speaker Paul Ryan, saying the ideas will get a warm welcome in Congress’s upper chamber – if the GOP still controls it.

From prominent figureheads to rank-and-file members, Republican senators told AMI Newswire that Ryan’s ideas mirror those he pitched back in January at a joint House-Senate GOP meeting in Baltimore. Because of that, they dismiss any suggestion of surprise or dissatisfaction with the Wisconsin congressman.

Ryan’s six-point agenda he announced on Wednesday are also all popular Republican ideas anyway, senators noted – lower taxes, less regulation, national security, repealing the Affordable Health Care Act, a conservative anti-poverty initiative, and strengthening congressional powers.

Going further, they praised Ryan himself for his messaging skills in announcing the ideas.

“In many ways, not just because of his office but because of his ideas, he is certainly one of the de facto leaders – if not the de facto leader – of the party,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the party’s 2008 presidential nominee, told AMI Newswire. “He and Mitch (McConnell, Senate GOP leader) work pretty closely together.”

“The Speaker is quite a policy wonk, and it’s good for Congress to reclaim its role as one of the generators of policy as opposed to just waiting on the White House,” said Senate GOP Whip John Cornyn. “I’m glad he’s doing it. He’s talking about policies that we all can coalesce around.”

“Paul certainly brings a different strength to the table, but his best strength is that he is an excellent communicator,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia. “A lot of us talk about ideas but don’t know the details like he does.”

Ryan on Wednesday said six specific policy agendas would be publicly unveiled by House GOP leaders as part of a “Confident America” agenda starting in June – taxes, regulation, national security, health care, poverty and strengthening Article 1 of the Constitution, which establishes legislative branch duties and powers. The ideas were purposefully vague, and Ryan resisted divulging details because he said they are still being hashed out.

But he said the announcement was worth being made because he wanted to put the public on notice that the GOP is taking a more activist role in addressing the nation’s problems.

“When I first took this job in October, I said the Republican Party can no longer be an opposition party, but should become a proponent party,” Ryan said. “I’m excited about these ideas. I’m really animated by them.” 

He made clear that the policies would eventually turn into proposed legislation – but in 2017, not this year. That would obviously be affected, he conceded, if presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton wins the November election.

"I don't think Hillary Clinton is going to agree with a lot of these things," he added.

Even more threatening to Ryan’s wish-list is the possibility of Republicans losing Congress itself. Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump has visibly split the party, with Ryan himself holding off on endorsing the New York billionaire. Indeed, as Ryan doggedly tried to emphasize his agenda, most media questions at his press conference returned again and again to his uneasy relationship with Trump.

Many Republicans remain persuaded that Trump cannot win the general election, and they believe his campaign could hurt Republicans in down-ballot races that could determine control of Congress. The GOP holds a majority of 246 seats to the Democrats' 188 in the House of Representatives; but the party’s Senate majority is thinner, with 54 Republicans to 44 for the Democrats and two Independents who caucus with the Democratic minority.

On Thursday, Ryan said at his weekly press conference that he spoke to Trump by phone on Wednesday night, but still wouldn’t announce an endorsement.  “It was a productive call, and I’ll leave it at that.” 

Ryan on Wednesday said that his and Trump’s staffs communicate “virtually every day,” and that Trump is aware of the policy proposals but isn’t actively involved in drafting them.

The first policy proposal to see the light of day in June will be legislation to fight poverty, which Ryan conceded has not always been seen as a traditional Republican priority. He said that is likely because many current House Republicans are young and still new to Washington, and unaware that Ryan has long discussed the issue in public.

Specifically, Ryan said the anti-poverty ideas would involve a “different approach” than the federal government’s current strategy of simply aiding the poor, which Ryan said has created a “stalemate.” Instead, he called for a more “output-based approach” that encourages welfare recipients to re-enter the workforce instead of solely relying on government aid.

Democrats have reacted with bemusement but also cold wariness to Ryan's ideas, cautioning that the Speaker appears to be papering over stark differences with the minority party. On poverty, for example, they note that he has long supported deep savings from programs that fight poverty, and warn that his new openness to tackling the issue could be a ruse.

“At best, this task force could at least expose where Republicans will go when it comes to the safety net,” Representative Xavier Becerra, the chairman of the House Democratic caucus, told The Atlantic. “At worst, this partisan task force could prove to be a front for a different motive: to dismantle the safety net ... If all these words they’re using are simply code for cutting, it’s hard to see how this effort they’re undertaking is going to be any different from other partisan efforts they’ve launched."