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 Ryan (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 Jones (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 McCarthy (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 Scalise (R-La.), and perhaps a far-right alternative like former House Freedom Caucus Chairman Jim Jordan (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 Pelosi (D-Calif.), Steny Hoyer (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 Meadows (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 Trump 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 Conway 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.

Tags Donald Trump Jim Jordan Kellyanne Conway Kevin McCarthy Mark Meadows Nancy Pelosi Paul Ryan Steny Hoyer Steve Scalise Walter Jones

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