On Tuesday, Congressman Paul Ryan announced he would run to replace John Boehner as speaker of the House after initially turning down the job, but only if House Republicans, and especially the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus, met a series of demands. On Wednesday night, Freedom Caucus members announced they would not endorse him or his specific requests, but over two-thirds of them would vote for him as speaker.
When Paul Ryan told his House Republican colleagues on Tuesday night that he's willing to serve as Speaker, the Wisconsin congressman said there were some strings attached: he expected his conditions to be met before he accepted the job. Near the top of the list was Ryan's expectation that he'd be endorsed by many of the GOP's key factions, including the right-wing House Freedom Caucus.
In fact, the specific word "endorsed" turns out to be surprisingly important. MSNBC's Benjy Sarlin reported last night on the latest drama in the Republican saga.
You'd be forgiven for rolling your eyes at the subtle nuances between announcing "support" and announcing an "endorsement," but in this case, it's likely to make the difference between Paul Ryan becoming Speaker and the House GOP descending into total chaos.
On Tuesday night, Ryan told reporters that he'll move forward if he has the "endorsement" of the various House Republican caucuses. Ryan's spokesperson used identical language, explaining that the Wisconsin lawmaker will serve if he has "the endorsement of all the conference’s major caucuses."
If the goal posts stay in place, last night's announcement from the House Freedom Caucus represented a serious setback to GOP plans -- since Ryan had vowed a day earlier to walk away from the Speaker's race without the group's endorsement. In order to have the House Freedom Caucus' formal backing, 80% of its members would have to endorse Ryan and that did not happen.
But while the 80% threshold wasn't met, most Freedom Caucus members nevertheless backed Ryan for Speaker. As silly as this sounds, it's why the Freedom Caucus can "support" Ryan without formally "endorsing" him.
The question then becomes, is this good enough for Ryan? Maybe he can just fudge the meaning of the words he and his spokesperson used on Tuesday night?
The answer appears to be, probably. After the vote from the right-wing caucus last night, Ryan issued a written statement that said, “I’m grateful for the support of a supermajority of the House Freedom Caucus. I look forward to hearing from the other two caucuses by the end of the week, but I believe this is a positive step toward a unified Republican team.”
In other words, it sounds as if Ryan, who demanded an endorsement, will settle for something close to an endorsement. It's an example of close-enough politics.
What's more, we now also can say with near-certainty that Paul Ryan has what John Boehner and Kevin McCarthy lacked: at least 218 votes for Speaker. In fact, I've heard some scuttlebutt that Ryan's head-count puts his overall tally at 225 or higher.
The precise conditions he laid out on Tuesday aren't being met, and there's some awkwardness surrounding Ryan starting his Speakership by moving the goal posts on his own conditions just 24 hours after publicly spelling them out, but the Wisconsin congressman now appears well positioned to hold the Speaker's gavel next week.