McCarthy and Scalise front-runners to replace Paul Ryan

McCarthy and Scalise front-runners to replace Paul Ryan
© Greg Nash

The House Republican leadership race is expected to reach a full boil following Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Juan Williams: Biden's child tax credit is a game-changer Trump clash ahead: Ron DeSantis positions himself as GOP's future in a direct-mail piece MORE’s (R-Wis.) retirement announcement on Wednesday.

Ryan’s top lieutenants, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyAfter police rip Trump for Jan. 6, McCarthy again blames Pelosi Capitol Police asked to arrest the maskless 228 Republican lawmakers urge Supreme Court to overrule Roe v. Wade MORE (R-Calif.) and Majority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseRepublican governors revolt against CDC mask guidance House to resume mask mandate after new CDC guidance What you need to know about the new COVID-19 surge MORE (R-La.), are both seen as potential Speakers-in-waiting — or minority leaders, if the GOP loses the House.

Though neither lawmaker has officially thrown his hat into the ring, Republican colleagues think both men will likely start making moves in the weeks ahead. And more lawmakers could enter the race as Republicans scramble to save their majority and consider who should lead them in 2019.

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“I know this town doesn’t let the bodies get cold before people start making announcements,” said Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerFirst hearing set for lawsuit over Florida's new anti-riot bill NRA appealing Florida ban on gun sales to people under 21 Trump's biggest political obstacle is Trump MORE (R-N.C.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.

“We’ve got to have a Speaker. And this is politics. So people will start running,” said Rep. Roger WilliamsJohn (Roger) Roger WilliamsGOP divided on anti-Biden midterm message The Hill's Morning Report - Bidens to visit Surfside, Fla., collapse site Trump, GOP return to border to rev up base MORE (R-Texas).

Ryan announced Wednesday morning that he will retire from Congress in January, bringing his Speakership to an end after a little more than three years on the job.

Speculation about Ryan’s political future had been swirling for months, but his formal announcement will now bring the battle for the Speaker’s gavel to the forefront of the conversation in the months leading up to November’s midterm elections.

“Certainly, his leaving will create a real vacuum,” said Rep. Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsWatchdog urges Justice to probe Trump, Meadows for attempting to 'weaponize' DOJ Washington Post calls on Democrats to subpoena Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Meadows for testimony on Jan. 6 Trump to Pence on Jan. 6: 'You don't have the courage' MORE (R-N.C.), the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus. “There will be a de facto battle for Speaker, or minority leader, that will ensue over the coming weeks, not months.”

McCarthy and Scalise, the No. 2 and No. 3 House GOP leaders, respectively, had already begun jockeying behind the scenes in case Ryan decided to call it quits after the midterms.

In separate statements, McCarthy and Scalise both praised Ryan for his service in Congress, but made no mention of their own possible career ambitions.

“Right now, we all need to be focused on getting our job done, getting our economy back on track, working with [President] Trump to continue on the progress we’ve made, and then make sure we hold the majority,” Scalise told The Hill. “Our members are still just digesting the fact that Paul made this dramatic announcement today.”

McCarthy also swatted down speculation about a potential Speaker’s bid.

“Paul’s staying all the way through and we’ve got our work cut out for us to continue to work to keep the majority and a lot of legislation to get done,” McCarthy told The Hill.

A GOP leadership staffer didn’t rule out the possibility of House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersLatina lawmakers discuss efforts to increase representation CDC backtracks with new mask guidance CDC: Vaccinated people should now wear masks in high transmission areas MORE (R-Wash.), the only woman in GOP leadership, running for the gavel. McMorris Rodgers is facing a tougher-than-expected reelection race that the Cook Political Report now rates as “lean Republican.”

Members have also floated House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyRepublicans focus tax hike opposition on capital gains change GOP, business groups snipe at Biden restaurant remarks Top Democrat offers bill to overhaul tax break for business owners MORE (R-Texas), who is fresh off a major tax-reform victory, and Walker as potential contenders. But it remains unclear whether they are interested in the job.

Meadows pointed to Rep. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopGOP's Westerman looks to take on Democrats on climate change House Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Westerman tapped as top Republican on House Natural Resources Committee | McMorris Rodgers wins race for top GOP spot on Energy and Commerce | EPA joins conservative social network Parler MORE (R-Utah), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, as someone who could emerge as a dark horse candidate.

As rank-and-file members waited in line to speak at the microphones after Ryan’s announcement, McCarthy gave an impromptu speech, followed by similar off-the-cuff remarks from Scalise and McMorris Rodgers — which some GOP lawmakers took as a sign of their early jockeying for the gavel.

Scalise and McCarthy, who are considered early front-runners in the race, have made moves in recent weeks that could better position themselves in potential bids for Speaker.

McCarthy was one of the earliest and highest-profile congressional backers of Trump, who fondly refers to the majority leader as “my Kevin.”

McCarthy, who flew back to Washington over the Easter recess for a private dinner with Trump and some of his supporters, recently began working with the White House on a rescission package to cut spending hikes from the just-passed $1.3 trillion omnibus legislation after Trump expressed outrage about the pricey government funding bill.

And on Fox News last month, McCarthy sided with Trump’s call for a second special counsel to investigate allegations of political bias at the FBI and Justice Department. Two days later, Scalise issued a statement taking the same position.

Some lawmakers predict Trump could be the deciding factor in the race. While his approval ratings hover in the low 40s, Trump is enormously popular with House GOP lawmakers and the conservative base.

While some think McCarthy has an edge in the “Trump primary,” Scalise has earned his own presidential plaudits and even a nickname: the “legend of Louisiana.”

During the State of the Union address in January, Trump heaped praise on Scalise for surviving a near-fatal shooting during a GOP baseball practice last summer, marveling at how quickly Scalise returned to work.

There’s no doubt that Scalise, who recently transitioned to crutches after months of navigating the Capitol in a motorized scooter, has seen his political star rise.

But some GOP sources doubt that Trump would even get involved in a leadership race on Capitol Hill.

Ryan has floated the possibility that he may eventually weigh in. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Ryan said he had thoughts on who should succeed him but that it wasn’t the right moment to share those thoughts.

“I have great confidence in this leadership team,” he said. “That election is in November, so it’s not something we have to sweat right now.”

The House Freedom Caucus, a band of roughly 30 conservative hard-liners, may have some sway over the outcome of the race.

McCarthy abruptly dropped his bid to replace then-Speaker John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerGOP up in arms over Cheney, Kinzinger Freedom Caucus presses McCarthy to force vote to oust Pelosi Stripping opportunity from DC's children MORE (R-Ohio) in 2015, saying he was worried he wouldn’t have enough support to effectively preside over the Republican conference.

But Meadows said McCarthy has been making more of an effort to ingratiate himself with the Freedom Caucus this year, and hinted that the Speaker’s race has come up in conversations on the House floor.

Some Republicans have observed that McCarthy has been spending more time with Freedom Caucus members in the back of the House chamber during votes.

And one Republican said McCarthy has even been sending birthday cards to some members.

“He’s been reaching out, trying to keep his promises to a number of members of the House Freedom Caucus. That will serve him well in whatever race, should he throw his hat into the ring,” Meadows said.

At least one conservative member, Rep. Walter JonesWalter JonesHillary Clinton brings up 'Freedom Fries' to mock 'cancel culture' Georgia officials open inquiry into Trump efforts to overturn election results Supreme Court declines to hear case challenging unlimited super PAC fundraising MORE (R-N.C.), remains opposed to McCarthy becoming Speaker. Jones said he is more supportive of Scalise, who he thinks has more conservative credentials.

“Steve would be a good person,” Jones said. “He will certainly be in the mix.”

While Ryan plans to stick around as Speaker until the end of his term, Meadows cast doubt on the idea that there would be a seven-month-long race for the gavel, predicting that the issue will be settled, even if informally, before the midterm elections.

“I think who the next Speaker will be, will certainly be decided before November,” Meadows said. “Once that kind of gets settled on, whether it’s in fact a vote, which I doubt, or this is the heir apparent, then there will be a transition in terms of direction.”