Republican rebels and defenders of the party line found a shred of common cause on Sunday, in the hope that one man might be able to quell the chaos in their ranks.
After a week of party chaos, hardline conservatives and their establishment opponents agreed on one thing: Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan may be the only person able to unite the party as speaker of the House, one of the most powerful positions in Washington, during critical months of the presidential primary and under the threat of another government shutdown.
After extensive pleading from panicked colleagues, however, the chair of the House ways and means committee, who was Mitt Romney’s presidential running mate in 2012, said he would reconsider and retreated to Wisconsin for the weekend.
Nonetheless, far-right and Tea Party conservatives pressed their case on Sunday for a major shake-up inside the party.
“We need a fresh start,” said Jason Chaffetz, himself running for the position, in an interview with ABC. “We have a gulf, a divide that needs to be bridged.”
Chaffetz, of Utah, said he would support Ryan should he decide to run, but insisted the party needed fundamental change nonetheless.
“There’s a need for some internal reform,” he said, before listing several issues rightwing Republicans hope will diminish the authority of the speaker. “The idea is to allow these good bills and ideas to percolate from the bottom up, rather than a top-down where the speaker is telling everybody what to do.”
House Republicans farther to the right, many of whom have joined a group calling itself the Freedom Caucus, have nominated Florida representative Daniel Webster.
“What we are going to do is change the culture,” said Raúl Labrador of Idaho, a member of the group, on CNN. Labrador said rightwing Republicans wanted to make sure every member “feels valuable” in Congress.
Freedom Caucus leader Jim Jordan, from Ohio, hinted that his group could back Ryan should he agree to take some powers away from the Republican leadership in the House.
“Paul Ryan is a good man,” Jordan said. “He’s a great communicator, the kind of messenger our party needs and certainly if he gets in the race I think our group would look favorably on him.”
Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a senior party figure who earlier in the week derided conservative upstarts for wanting more authority than they had earned, also tried to downplay the internecine intrigue.
“This process, as chaotic as it looks from the outside,” he said on CNN, sitting next to Labrador, “it probably has been healthy. A lot of things are being aired that probably needed to be aired.”
Manny of Cole’s peers disagree, including Peter King of New York, another establishment stalwart who said earlier this week: “We can’t go on like this with one small group, a tiny minority, hijack[ing] the party.”
Such party rifts have been reflected in the Republican presidential race, where candidates with no experience in government, like billionaire Donald Trump and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, have for months dominated the polls over former and current governors and senators.
Trump scorned the party’s disunity, telling CBS in an interview broadcast on Sunday congressional Republicans were “terrible negotiators”. He said that while he disagreed with some of Ryan’s positions, he would be “OK” with him as speaker.
“I think he doesn’t want it very badly, but you never know,” Trump said. “Maybe he’s playing one of the great games of all time.”
The billionaire insisted that the party needed to fight even harder for its principles and rid itself of leaders who “never win”.
“We need toughness,” he said. “We need fists, we need the brainpower, and we need toughness.”
Trump’s populist rhetoric has won him the support of enough of the party’s grassroots to buoy him at the top of the polls, even as his inflammatory remarks about immigrants, women and others have exasperated party leaders.
Carson also appeared on CBS on Sunday. He suggested that the party revolt was inevitable, saying: “The electorate is getting pretty frustrated and I think that’s what’s being reflected in Congress right now.”
Even staffers, usually anonymous workers in the trenches of the Capitol, have started breaking ranks.
One former staffer, Bradley Podliska, a self-declared lifetime Republican who was fired as an investigator for the GOP-led House committee on the September 2012 Benghazi attack, said on Saturday the probe was a partisan ploy to undermine the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton, rather than to find out what caused the deaths of four Americans in Libya.
On the talk shows, the politicians closed ranks.
“I’ve never met this person, I don’t know this person,” Chaffetz said. “I don’t think it’s accurate.”
Labrador similarly tried to downplay the criticism, although he did not deny that the committee could have political intentions.
“He said the investigation is currently political according to his opinion,” he said. “He said he felt [its intentions] had changed.”