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By Craig Gilbert, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (TNS)

WASHINGTON — In his first big political address as Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan said Republicans have to stand for more than just undoing what President Barack Obama has done.

“If we want to save the country, then we need a mandate from the people. And if we want a mandate, then we need to offer ideas,” said Ryan, speaking from the Library of Congress across the street from the U.S. Capitol.

“So, our No. 1 goal for the next year is to put together a complete alternative to the left’s agenda,” he said.

As he has repeatedly since he was elected speaker on Oct. 29, Ryan promised to offer a meaty agenda that will give voters a clear alternative to Democrats in the 2016 elections.

He said nothing explicit about the tumultuous Republican presidential race that has unnerved many insiders in his party. As he spoke, the GOP’s 2016 hopefuls were in another part of the nation’s capital, addressing the Republican Jewish Coalition.

But Ryan said his party’s path to the kind of defining victory it needs is not to “demonize, polarize, turn out your voters (and) hope the rest stay home.”

Ryan said, “Yes, it’s possible we could win that way — but to what end?”

The Wisconsin Republican laid out in broad strokes a conservative agenda that includes repealing the 2010 health care law; making the tax code flatter and simpler; cutting taxes, spending and debt; promoting trade; reforming the Pentagon; building a “21st-century military”; and providing a conservative answer on poverty and stagnant wages.

As he has in the past, Ryan called for combining poverty programs, expanding work requirements, letting states and communities experiment, and testing the results.

On the president’s health care law, Ryan said, “We think this problem is so urgent that, next year, we are going to unveil a plan to replace every word of Obamacare.”

He also sharply condemned Obama on foreign policy and national security.

“Our adversaries don’t respect us. Too many people think a warning from the United States is the hollow protest of a has-been,” he said.

But Ryan said the “big thing I think House Republicans need to do in 2016” is to pass bills that offer positive conservative alternatives, “even if (Obama) won’t sign them into law.”

“We will put out specific proposals and give the people a real choice,” he said. “And I don’t mean just undo what the president has done — as if we could time-travel back to 2009. I mean show what we would do, what our ideal policy would be — looking forward to 2017 and beyond.”

In his second month as speaker, Ryan hinted at a kind of two-track approach to his job: keeping the government functioning by working with Democrats where necessary to avoid complete paralysis in Washington, while passing legislation that defines what the GOP stands for.

“We don’t have to compromise our principles to work with the other side. Even a blind squirrel can find a nut every now and then, and hard as it might be to believe, even politicians can find common ground,” he said.

Interviewed on MSNBC’s Morning Joe before his speech Thursday, Ryan all but assured passage of a broad spending bill in the coming days that will keep the government running.

“I have no reason to believe we’ll have a government shutdown,” he said.

Ryan said in his speech that, “even if we can’t move mountains, we can make moves in the right direction … we can make progress on issues where there’s bipartisan agreement, like rebuilding our roads and bridges or bringing some certainty to the tax code.”

And he touted his performance in his opening weeks as speaker, saying, “I’d like to think we’ve hit the ground running.”

The new speaker in essence asked conservatives in his party to be patient through 2016 and understand the limits of what a GOP Congress can achieve under divided government.

“A great frustration in our party is we have not had a real national majority in seven years. We have controlled Congress, but not the presidency. And we need to. This country has big problems. But if we do not have a president who will work with us, we will not solve those problems — that is, while they are still solvable,” Ryan said at one point.

“We need a new president. It’s just that simple,” he said at another.

“We want America to be confident again,” he said. “We want people to believe in the future again. We want a country where no one is stuck, where no one settles, where everyone can rise.”

A spokesman for Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi dismissed Ryan’s speech.

“Republicans remain fixated on a toxic special interest agenda that threatens the economic security of millions of seniors and hard-working families,” said Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said.

“Speaker Ryan said nothing new today — only more of the same tired Republican plans to empower the wealthy and well-connected at the expense of seniors, children and working families.”

©2015 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) holds a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington November 19, 2015.  REUTERS/Gary Cameron



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