House consumed by leadership races

House consumed by leadership races
© Greg Nash

House leadership races on both sides of the aisle are consuming the Capitol as major legislating grinds to a halt and attention shifts toward November’s midterm elections — and who will lead the parties through the high-stakes 2020 presidential season.

While the first few months of the year were filled with legislative fights over immigration, guns and government spending, the past few weeks have been dominated by palace intrigue.


And with Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanThe Hill's Morning Report — Dems detail case to remove Trump for abuse of power Social security emerges as latest flash point in Biden-Sanders tussle Hill.TV's Saagar Enjeti rips Sanders for 'inability to actually fight with bad actors' in party MORE (R-Wis.) a lame duck, the rest of the year now looks like it will be filled with internal politicking — a situation some GOP lawmakers said they wanted to avoid ahead of what looks to be a difficult election season.

“There is more unknown than I have seen in a long time,” Rep. Walter JonesWalter Beaman JonesExperts warn Georgia's new electronic voting machines vulnerable to potential intrusions, malfunctions Georgia restores 22,000 voter registrations after purge Stacey Abrams group files emergency motion to stop Georgia voting roll purge MORE (R-N.C.) told The Hill on Tuesday. “I’ve been here 22 years and I have never seen this amount of uncertainty.”

The House GOP leadership team is projecting an image of calm a week after Ryan’s sudden announcement that he won’t seek reelection.

But behind the scenes, there is a storm brewing on Capitol Hill as party leaders try to figure out who should — or even can — succeed the Wisconsin Republican, and how soon that transition might take place. The House isn’t even staying in Washington the full week, canceling Thursday’s session in a sign of the light legislative workload.

Ryan’s high-profile endorsement of his top lieutenant, Rep. Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Cheney's decision not to run for Senate sparks Speaker chatter Mark Mellman: A failure of GOP leadership MORE (R-Calif.), to succeed him appears to have staved off a revolt to push the Speaker out much sooner than his planned January departure.

But it hasn’t shut down the shadow race for Speaker between McCarthy, Majority Whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clashes, concessions Cheney's decision not to run for Senate sparks Speaker chatter Trump welcomes LSU to the White House: 'Go Tigers' MORE (R-La.), and perhaps a far-right alternative like former House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanBolton upends Trump impeachment trial  Government privacy watchdog under pressure to recommend facial recognition ban Jordan says he thinks trial will be over by next week MORE (R-Ohio).

Democrats, meanwhile, are facing a potential leadership earthquake of their own, as a growing number of younger members has become increasingly disenchanted with their long run in the minority — and, by extension, with the veteran leadership team of Reps. Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse passes bill aimed at bolstering Holocaust education Hillicon Valley — Presented by Philip Morris International — NFL social media accounts hacked | Dem questions border chief over controversial Facebook group | Clinton says Zuckerberg has 'authoritarian' views Meadows: Republicans who break with Trump could face political repercussions MORE (D-Calif.), Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerThis week: Senate barrels toward showdown on impeachment witnesses The Hill's Morning Report - Trump trial begins with clash over rules House revives agenda after impeachment storm MORE (D-Md.) and James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who have failed to win the gavel in their past four tries.

There are signs that all the backroom talk and speculation, breathlessly covered by the political press, is putting some nerves on edge.

Ryan on Friday angrily dismissed a Politico report of growing friction between the Speaker and McCarthy as “complete bull.”

And at a private meeting with lawmakers at the Capitol Hill Club, Ryan again pushed back on suggestions of him resigning soon by arguing he can raise more money for House colleagues now that he doesn’t need to focus on his Wisconsin reelection. 

McCarthy hasn’t publicly declared his bid for Ryan’s job, but has been unable to avoid the Speaker chatter.

At a closed-door California delegation meeting Tuesday, a Republican colleague stood up and told McCarthy that all 14 GOP members of the group were behind him in his quest for the Speaker’s gavel, a source in the room told The Hill.

The majority leader is courting conservative lawmakers who will play a key role in picking Ryan’s successor, though Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall Meadows Meadows: Bolton manuscript leaked 'to manipulate' senators over witness vote Meadows: Republicans who break with Trump could face political repercussions Trump legal team begins second day of arguments under Bolton furor MORE (R-N.C.), head of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, has been urging his legion of bomb-throwers to keep their powder dry and withhold their endorsement. He’s argued that his colleagues’ votes will be far more valuable later in the process than if they commit to a candidate early on, according to people who have spoken to Meadows.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren: Dershowitz presentation 'nonsensical,' 'could not follow it' Bolton told Barr he was concerned Trump did favors for autocrats: report Dershowitz: Bolton allegations would not constitute impeachable offense MORE is extremely close to McCarthy, but Meadows has urged the president not to publicly back a candidate in the race, according to a GOP lawmaker familiar with the conversation. A public endorsement from Trump could undermine the Freedom Caucus’s leverage in the leadership battle, though it’s unclear if such a move would be enough to help a candidate reach the required 218 votes on the House floor.

Several top White House officials, including Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayGeorge Conway: Witness missing from impeachment trial is Trump Kellyanne Conway knocks Biden, talks up Sanders in Wash Post op-ed Democrats sharpen case on second day of arguments MORE and Marc Short, also have been cautioning Trump against wading into the Speaker’s race, ABC News reported. Vice President Pence — who served with Ryan, McCarthy and Scalise in the House — also has been involved in the discussions and is urging Trump to stay neutral. 

“[Pence] hasn’t weighed in for or against any candidate” for Speaker, a Pence source said. "The VP has advised the [White House] stay neutral and let the House sort it out." 

On the Democratic side, there is even more uncertainty.

Pelosi and Hoyer, her top lieutenant, have led the caucus since 2003, and Clyburn has been the No. 3 Democrat since 2006. All are in their late 70s, leaving a younger generation of restless Democrats clamoring for a chance to climb into the leadership ranks.  

The generational restlessness has led to some early jockeying among certain newer members — notably Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), the Caucus chairman — who are hoping to break the leadership bottleneck, even as Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn have given no indication they intend to leave.

“Everything is, on the surface, calm, because there’s nothing in play. But down below there’s a current,” said one House Democratic aide, who spoke anonymously on the sensitive topic.

Democrats need to pick up 23 seats to win back the House, which they lost in the 2010 wave election, but Pelosi will likely need much larger gains to retake the Speaker’s gavel, given the handful of Democrats who have historically voted against her for leader.

The math is complicated by another variable: the yet-unknown number of Democratic candidates who, like Rep. Conor Lamb (Pa.), promised their constituents they’ll oppose Pelosi for leader if voters send them to Washington. If that list is long, Pelosi may need a real wave to secure the 218 votes she’ll need to win back the gavel on the chamber floor.

“If it’s a comfortable majority, I think everybody’s reelected,” a second Democratic lawmaker said Tuesday. “If it’s a very narrow win, then that becomes a very different situation. … It becomes much more difficult for her.”

And if the Democrats fail to win the majority at all?

“They’re gonna want to get rid of everybody,” the lawmaker said.

Melanie Zanona and Juliegrace Brufke contributed. 

Updated on April 18 at 9:36 a.m.