AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
In an address on Capitol Hill today, House Speaker Paul Ryan criticized the state of American politics. His remarks were seen as a rebuke of GOP president frontrunner Donald Trump, although Ryan did not call him out by name. NPR congressional reporter Susan Davis joins us now. And Susan, first, why did Speaker Ryan give this speech today?
SUSAN DAVIS: The speaker has increasingly been put in a position where he's asked to respond to Donald Trump and his policies and actions on the campaign trail. And he's clearly frustrated by this. He's expressed a lot of frustration about the tone of the campaign. And the House is recessing for a three-week break today, and I think he wanted to lay down a marker to try and change the tone.
Now, as you said, he did not name Trump in this speech today, but it was very clear that Trump was a motivating factor. Let's take a listen.
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PAUL RYAN: This has always been a tough business, and when passions flare, ugliness is sometimes inevitable. But we shouldn't accept ugliness as the norm.
DAVIS: That ugliness he's referring to is the violence that has occurred on the campaign trail, and Ryan has previously rebuked Donald Trump for not taking greater responsibility to change the culture around some of his campaign events.
CORNISH: Right, but Speaker Ryan is also a former vice president (laughter) nominee. I mean, did he take any personal responsibility for the state of politics?
DAVIS: He did. He said the party has overcorrected on issues of criminal justice. And today, he promised that the House would vote this year on legislation that would rewrite sentencing laws that advocates say have disproportionately affected African-Americans.
He also cited how he used to refer to people on welfare as takers, as he did in the 2012 race when he was on the ticket with Mitt Romney. And he said he had a change of heart about that and the way he talked about it and the way he talks about people who need government assistance. Here's what he said.
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RYAN: Takers wasn't how to refer to a single mom stuck in a poverty trap, trying to take care of her own family. Most people don't want to be dependent, and to label a whole group of Americans that way was wrong.
DAVIS: Ryan said today he's making it his mission as the speaker to, in his words, raise our gaze and aim for a brighter horizon, which is a distinctly different tone than what's unfolding in the presidential race.
CORNISH: Do you get the sense that he's at all concerned about Donald Trump's chances as the party's nominee?
DAVIS: You know, he's pledged his support to not - to support Donald Trump if he is the nominee, but he is clearly trying to create some daylight between the policies of Donald Trump and the policies of House Republicans. Ryan has started the party working on what he's calling an agenda project that they'll unveil later this year. It's essentially a campaign platform that House Republicans are going to run on in November.
The challenge that he has and the challenge the party leaders have with Donald Trump is whether you can really distinguish his policies from down-ballot Republicans this fall. The presidential nominee obviously traditionally sets the agenda, but this is increasingly difficult because fewer Americans separate their votes between the top of the ticket and the bottom of the ticket.
CORNISH: Meanwhile, what role could Ryan play at this summer's convention?
DAVIS: Well, the speaker is the - the speaker of the House is always - serves as the chairman of the convention. He'll preside over the formal nomination of the candidate in Cleveland. How we elect presidents is similar to how we elect speakers, so that's why he presides over it.
Normally (laughter), this is a cushy kind of ceremonial gig. It's an honor. But if no candidate goes into the convention with the majority of the delegates to win the nomination, as many Republicans still believe, than Paul Ryan will be a critical player in running what could be a historic floor fight for the nomination.
CORNISH: In the meantime, this speech - it wasn't in front of a big crowd, right?
DAVIS: No. It was in the House Ways and Means room, where it writes the tax laws, which Paul Ryan was the chairman of before he became speaker of the House. And it was before interns, who - he said he wanted to inspire the younger generation who are interested in politics to set a better tone.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Susan Davis on Capitol Hill. Susan, thank you.
DAVIS: Thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.