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By Craig Gilbert, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (TNS)

WASHINGTON — If Paul Ryan is playing his cards right — and it’s a big if — then he has turned the Republicans’ leadership crisis from a “no win” predicament into a “no lose” proposition.

He can be the next House speaker on his own terms, with a bigger mandate, greater job security and more family time than his predecessor.

Or rebellious House conservatives can reject his steep demands and give him an easy out to spurn a job he didn’t want in the first place.

“He wins no matter what happens here,” says one Wisconsin colleague, Republican Reid Ribble. “Because he’s not vying to be speaker. And so if he doesn’t get everybody behind him, he stays where he is and he’s as happy as a clam. And if he gets everybody behind him, he’s empowered to do the types of things he wants to do as speaker. So it was actually a pretty good maneuver.”

Ryan ended a dramatic waiting game Tuesday when he told GOP colleagues he would agree to be their speaker if they could unify behind him.

“If I can truly be a unifying figure, then I will gladly serve. And if I’m not unifying, that will be fine as well. I will be happy to stay where I am at the Ways and Means Committee,” Ryan told reporters Tuesday night, referring to the committee chairmanship he has long cherished and assumed less than a year ago.

“I have left this decision in their hands,” Ryan said of his colleagues.

Ryan asked for the endorsement of the party’s major factions in the House, including the conservative 40-member Freedom Caucus that forced current Speaker John Boehner’s resignation.

But Ryan laid out conditions that some members of the Freedom Caucus can’t abide, including altering the ability of individual members to force a vote to remove the speaker, known in parliamentary lingo as a “motion to vacate the chair.”

“That’s just not going to happen,” said Idaho’s Raul Labrador, who like others members of the Freedom Caucus wants the speaker to have less power, not more.

“I want a speaker that serves the membership, not the other way around,” said Tim Huelskamp of Kansas, another caucus member. “It will be hard to put these two together: a bottom-up approach with a speaker candidate who says, ‘I will serve only if you meet this list of demands.'”

Ryan met Wednesday with the Freedom Caucus.

With his conditional “yes” to the speakership, the pressure within the party shifts from Ryan — whether he would take one “for the team” and fill the glaring void for speaker — to the hard-line rebels in the GOP caucus.

They can either join their colleagues and endorse Ryan, arresting the party’s embarrassing dysfunction, or take the blame for plunging the House back into disarray, with no obvious alternative for speaker.

“There are some people that are not going to vote for Congressman Ryan no matter what,” said Ribble, a former member of the Freedom Caucus who dropped out when they drove Boehner to give up his job.

Ribble said the Freedom Caucus faces a contradiction in its own approach. It wants a more democratic GOP caucus that respects the will of the majority, but is willing to block the majority over its choice for speaker and other issues.

Before Tuesday, Ryan appeared to be in a no-win predicament. If he said no to speaker, he would be leaving his party in the lurch. If he said yes, he would be signing up for a doomed mission, managing an unmanageable GOP caucus.

Instead, his “conditional” yes has made his choices seem more appealing.

If he doesn’t get the across-the-board support from GOP colleagues he’s asking for, he won’t be blamed for “selfishly” spurning a speaker’s race, and he keeps his dream job of chairing the Ways and Means committee and trying to rewrite the nation’s tax code.

And if he does get his mandate to be the next speaker, at least he tackles the job on his own terms: with some assurance he won’t be undermined in his own party; and with a promise that his personal time with his family won’t be completely sacrificed to the political travel and fundraising demands of the office.

But even that new calculus comes with plenty of peril.

The speakership could be a minefield under the best of terms. The GOP caucus could prove to be ungovernable. And the risks to Ryan’s political future are massive, whether he wants to run for president someday or not.

“If history was an indicator, you could say this ends Paul Ryan’s political career,” says Wisconsin GOP colleague Sean Duffy, who added it was “pretty cool” that Ryan is willing to do it anyway.

Of the last eight speakers, only Democrat Nancy Pelosi has remained in the House after serving in that office. Tradition tells us it’s up and out for House speakers.

“He’s taking a big gamble. The thing is every Republican speaker in the last 30 years has been forced out,” says U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. “He’s also sacrificing the job he’s dreamed of having his entire service in Congress. … He’s doing this to try to make Congress more functional.”

In the eyes of his supporters, Ryan’s signature reluctance to be speaker is a sign of virtue and source of power.

“He’ll be the only guy that can look at anybody with the moral authority and say, ‘Look, you know I didn’t want this job. This is what we have to do. I need your help,'” says Republican Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a Ryan supporter.

But that same reluctance is a red flag to Ryan skeptics in the caucus.

“He does not have time to do the speaker’s job,” says Alabama’s Mo Brooks, a Freedom Caucus member, referring to Ryan’s insistence that “I cannot and will not give up my family time.”

Said Brooks: “I’m troubled by the insistence of so many members that we put him in a position that he has shown a reluctance to take.”

Said Huelskamp: “He clearly doesn’t want to do the job.”

Republicans are scheduled to select their new speaker Wednesday, with the full House voting the next day, Oct. 29.

If their choice is the reluctant Ryan, his political gambit will be put to the test: whether taking an incredibly important and difficult job that you don’t want is a crafty strategy for success or a career-killer.

Photo: Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) leaves a meeting about his bid to be the next Speaker of the House with moderate members of the House Republican caucus on Capitol Hill in Washington October 22, 2015. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

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