Tensions over who will succeed Speaker Paul Ryan are starting to torment House Republicans as they enter one of the most difficult midterm election cycles in years.
Allies of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the current favorite for the job, are upset that Ryan insists on staying through the election. They think the delay can only hurt McCarthy’s chances and might mean a months-long power struggle in the House Republican Conference in the thick of election season.
The relationship between McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) remains frosty. Scalise endorsed his more senior colleague on Friday after his hand was forced by Ryan, but the Louisiana lawmaker remains interested in the speakership if McCarthy can’t round up the votes.
And then there's the House Freedom Caucus. The group on Friday sent the majority leader a blunt warning that he doesn't have the votes when one of the group’s ringleaders, Rep. Jim Jordan, floated that he might run for speaker himself. Jordan couldn’t win. But he could deny McCarthy votes from the Freedom Caucus that he can’t become speaker without.
All the while, rank-in-file House Republicans are divided over whether to postpone a speakership vote until after the November elections or get the divisive process over with now. There’s a fear that if Ryan remains speaker, the drama over who will lead the conference will only get worse.
“Nature abhors a vacuum; something’s got to fill that,” said Rep. Thomas Massie of what’s shaping up to be a seven-month leadership race. “I don’t know if the palace can sustain that much intrigue.”
The back-and-forth comes as the House Republican majority is already in serious jeopardy, in large part because of the backlash against President Donald Trump. But now Republicans have to worry about more than just an unpopular president and Democratic enthusiasm weighing them down; their internal divisions could also trip them up.
“I hope there is an agreement that we could throttle back a little bit on the leadership races because it’s a very divisive process,” said Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who thinks Ryan should lead the conference through the election but worries about the current jockeying. “It’s not fun to go through.”
For the first time in their three years of serving in leadership together, the interests of Ryan and McCarthy are colliding. Once dubbed the “young guns” (along with since-defeated Eric Cantor), the two were seen as future faces of the Republican Party. When McCarthy couldn’t win the votes to succeed John Boehner as speaker in 2015, McCarthy stepped aside and served as the younger Ryan‘s No. 2, never holding a grudge.
Yet the duo’s relationship is being put to the test now. Ryan’s position that he will remain speaker through the election has put McCarthy in an awkward position. A seven-month leadership race could hurt McCarthy’s bid to lead the conference, some Republicans say, giving conservatives months to make demands of him for their votes.
When one of McCarthy’s allies, Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), tried to make the case last week for holding the vote now instead of at the end of the year, it backfired. A clearly annoyed Ryan publicly shot down the idea.
“[T]here is nobody who’s comes close to being able to raise the kind of funds I have and still can raise for this majority,” Ryan said. “It makes no sense to take the biggest fundraiser off the field. And I think almost all of our members see it that way as well.”
But McCarthy will have to decide if — and when — he wants to broach the issue with Ryan personally. Some people close to McCarthy believe he could garner the votes to become speaker now with Trump's help, though it’s unclear whether the White House will weigh in.
Ryan’s camp has argued that House Republicans would be best served in the midterms by keeping him in the post through the election and postponing the decision on his successor. Leadership elections can be ugly, his team notes, and the last thing the conference needs during a tough campaign is that additional distraction.
Many rank-and-file members agree. Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas) said anyone who’s jockeying for the speakership now won’t get his vote.
“To me, if people start doing that, that tells me who shouldn’t be speaker,” Flores said. “Because if they can’t remember the three principle things we’ve got to do — pass legislation, get re-elected and hold the majority — then I’m not sure I want to vote for that person.”
Added Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.): “We can’t have a leadership race right now. We need to focus on keeping the majority in Republicans hands.”
Ryan's retirement announcement has opened divisions within GOP leadership over policy, too. In his bid to woo conservatives who blocked him from becoming speaker in 2015, McCarthy is working with Trump to rescind billions of dollars in new spending that was included in a deal that Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) struck with Democratic leaders last month.
Members of the Appropriations Committee hate the idea, saying it will erode any trust between the two parties on spending issues that require bipartisanship. Ryan hasn’t been particularly vocal in support, either, though he’s expected to go along with it if Trump and McCarthy continue pushing it.
When POLITICO asked one appropriator why McCarthy would pursue this, he pointed to the Californian Republican's leadership ambitions.
“I’ll say what I got in trouble for before, which is: This is all about placating the president, appeasing the Republican ‘no’ votes on the omnibus, and it can help people climb up the leadership ladder,” said retiring Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.), who upset McCarthy when he said something similar before.
The awkward dance is likely to continues as McCarthy looks to shore up his standing with the far-right of the conference. McCarthy recently endorsed appointing a second special counsel to investigate Hillary Clinton, also seen as an appeal to hard-liners. But conservatives are likely to push him further.
They’ve been demanding, for one, that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein be impeached or held in contempt of Congress over the Russia probe. As the drumbeat grows, McCarthy will be stuck between Ryan’s camp, which wants to leave special counsel Robert Muller alone, and the most conservative wing of the conference, which McCarthy needs in order to win the speakership.
Then there’s the strained dynamic between Scalise and McCarthy, which hasn’t particular improved and has sucked in Ryan’s office, according to multiple Republican sources. McCarthy’s camp is still bitter that Scalise suggested he’d seek the speakership if McCarthy couldn’t garner the votes, arguing that it implied a lack of faith in the majority leader‘s ability to win over the conference.
Scalise’s allies, meanwhile, question whether McCarthy will have the votes to win — doubts that are likely to grow after Jordan's expressed interest in the speakership.
Scalise is expected to be out in the coming days for one of his final surgeries following his near-fatal shooting last June.
With McCarthy and Scalise vying for his job, Ryan has tried to keep the peace between the two. During a press conference last week and a later interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press“ last week, Ryan suggested Scalise had endorsed McCarthy for speaker when, in fact, he had not done so.
“So Steve Scalise — it’s your understanding that he believes that Kevin McCarthy should be the heir apparent, whether it’s leader or speaker?” asked host Chuck Todd.
Ryan responded: “That’s right. That’s right… I think Kevin is the right guy to step up.”
Hounded by reporters for hours afterward asking whether Scalise had really endorsed McCarthy, the whip’s office put out a statement saying Scalise would back McCarthy for speaker.
Asked Friday about the notion of moving leadership elections up, Scalise deferred to leadership’s newest talking points about the need to focus on legislating, not political jockeying.
“All of our conversations have been focusing on the agenda,” Scalise said. “With all the intrigue that’s going on, we’ve got to stay focused on our agenda.”