But the House speaker is once again running into resistance from the Senate.
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Senate Republicans last December panned Speaker Paul Ryan’s pitch to overhaul entitlements. But the Wisconsin Republican is back at it again, repackaging his proposals in hopes of gaining traction on welfare reform.
During a GOP retreat here in Appalachia, Ryan urged congressional Republicans to tackle “workforce development.” He messaged the somewhat amorphous phrase as a matter of “helping people”— not a budget-cutting excursive.
But at least a half-dozen Republicans told POLITICO that Ryan’s proposal could include work requirements for welfare beneficiaries, which could repel senators. Indeed, at least two Senate Republicans said Thursday that they liked the idea in theory — but weren’t sure the upper chamber would ever take it up.
“I don’t see us getting there,” said Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, whose state of West Virginia has one of the highest percentages of people on welfare. “I can’t see us opening that up into a full-bodied discussion in the Senate.”
House conservatives, however, are applauding the effort. Standing inside an expansive ballroom at the Greenbrier Resort Wednesday evening, House Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker said there are “24 million people who are out of the workforce who are abled-body adults.”
“If you really want someone to get out there and find fulfillment… even though you’ve got to get the framing or the phrasing right, wouldn’t you want to see that person excel?” he asked.
A little remarketing might be in order, he added: “When we talk about ‘Medicaid reform,’ that’s not a great buzz phrase.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last December that overhauling the social safety net during a contentious election year would only hurt vulnerable Republicans. McConnell and Ryan discussed the matter at a Camp David strategy session and agreed not to move forward with a welfare overhaul using the fast-tracking tool known as budget reconciliation, which circumvents the Senate filibuster.
But Ryan clearly isn’t giving up. And any discouraging words appear to go in Ryan’s right ear and out his left.
During a Wednesday night retreat session, for example, Ryan was in full salesman mode. He told lawmakers they need to prioritize “getting people the skills and opportunity to get into the workforce,” according to a person in the room. And he insisted the idea is popular.
He emphasized the “jobs” piece of the equation, pointing out that there are 6.6 million people on unemployment and more than 5.8 million open jobs. That skills gap, he said, could be filled by the unemployed population if the government provided the facilities to link the two.
“We need to focus on closing the skills gap,” he said, reading from a month-old Washington Post headline that said: “2018’s challenges: too many jobs, not enough workers.” “Our goal should be helping those people close that skills gap. This improves people’s lives, and it helps our economy in general.”
GOP cheerleaders of the idea appears to recognize the sensitivity of the issue. Walker, for instance, pointed out that 63 percent of people using such federal benefits are white, perhaps in a bid to pre-empt accusations that tackling the safety net would be a racially tinged exercise.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway on Thursday will follow up on Ryan’s proposal in an hour-long breakout session aimed at making some Republicans more comfortable with the idea.
“It’s all about trying to find a workforce. I think yesterday, they said 6.6 million people on unemployment and 5.8 million jobs that could be filled, so … that ‘workforce’ development is trying to move those from unemployment into work, and that’s what it was designed to do,” said House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-N.C.).
But even Meadows acknowledged that “I think it will be a pretty heavy lift” because of the Senate. And No. 3 Senate Republican John Thune of South Dakota similarly expressed skepticism, even as he praised the Ryan idea as well-tested in states around the country.
“I think there are some programs where there are able-bodied adults who could be out there doing something, whether it’s working, whether it’s job training, whether it’s being in school,” Thune said. “I think it’s a fairly practical thing. And honestly, if you look at what the demands are going to be in terms of jobs in the work place, we’re going to need people to fill them.”
But Democrats would attack the proposal as undercutting the poor, he agreed. And because of that, the Ryan plan is unlikely to make it to President Donald Trump’s desk for a signature anytime soon.
“I think there would be some Democrat support for them in the Senate. But, enough to get 60? I don’t know,” he said.