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Paul Ryan talks Trump, government shutdown at UW-Madison

The former house speaker says Republican Kevin McCarthy will need Democrats to fund government and keep his job

Paul Ryan listens to former President Donald Trump speak during a meeting with Republican lawmakers
Paul Ryan listens to former President Donald Trump speak during a meeting with Republican lawmakers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington on Sept. 5, 2018. Former House Speaker Ryan said Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023, that Republicans will lose the presidential election if Trump is the nominee and that he expects hard-right followers of Trump to force a government shutdown within days. Evan Vucci/AP File Photo

Former House Speaker Paul Ryan said Tuesday that he thinks current Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy will eventually turn to Democrats to pass a bill to fund the government – and to keep his top job in Congress.

During an appearance at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Ryan also predicted that Republicans will lose the next presidential election unless they nominate someone other than former President Donald Trump.

A federal government shutdown is expected Sunday unless lawmakers and President Joe Biden can agree on future spending.

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The Janesville Republican led the House during two government shutdowns in 2018 and the start of 2019 before resigning from Congress. He joked about his familiarity with “a small handful” of Republicans who will not approve an extension of government funding.

“There are two people that I feel really sorry for these days – Aaron Rogers and Kevin McCarthy,” Ryan quipped.

On government funding and McCarthy

Ryan blasted members of the far-right Freedom Caucus for voting against government funding and threatening to oust their party’s leader without offering any viable alternatives.

“It’s nihilism, is what it is,” Ryan said. “We look like fools. We look like we can’t govern.”

He said that if McCarthy were to put a compromise government funding bill up for a vote it would pass with “overwhelming bipartisan support.”

But he said doing so would endanger McCarthy’s job because of the likelihood he would in turn face a vote to remove him as speaker.

“Hopefully there’s a bipartisan vote, for the sake of the institution, to support him. I believe there will be,” he said. “I think institutionally if the Democrats say, ‘let’s just participate in kicking a guy out for bringing a bipartisan compromise to the floor,’ it doesn’t speak very well to the institution.”

On Trump in office

Ryan has long made clear his displeasure with Trump. On Tuesday he said the former president is unfit for the job.

“I think leaders should endeavor to be honest, ethical, moral people who try to set standards for themselves and lead by example for the rest of the country,” he said. “Donald Trump doesn’t try to do any of that. He does the opposite of it, frankly.”

Ryan said he hopes the party can find a nominee other than the former president within the first few presidential primaries next January. He said that would be possible if the majority of the party coalesced behind a challenger early.

He pointed to Trump’s losing record in the 2020 presidential election, as well as congressional elections in 2018 and 2022. He said college educated suburbanites will be the swing voters who decide the next election.

“Do you think those suburban voters like Donald Trump more since Jan. 6? I mean, good grief, they didn’t vote for him this last time,” he said. “They’re not gonna vote for him again.”

Trump won surburban voters in 2016 before losing them by a wide margin in 2020.

Ryan is now a professor at the University of Notre Dame and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank.

The hour-long appearance, a conversation with La Follette School of Public Affairs Director Susan Webb Yackee, focused mostly on policy preferences for which Ryan has advocated for decades. He reiterated his support for free trade, reforming social safety net programs and data-driven policymaking.

He expressed optimism about the country’s future, but said both parties must move past politicians from their “entertainment wing.”

“We have what we need to do to regenerate our country right here in our country,” he said. “So I’m actually pretty bullish about it if we get our politics right.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the American Enterprise is a right-learning think tank, not a libertarian organization.