Speaker Paul Ryan’s suddenly shaky future as House speaker is already prompting closed-door talk among House Republicans about who’d take over if he steps aside or is spurned by archconservatives.
Between his falling out with Donald Trump and his ongoing standoff with the House Freedom Caucus, some Republicans are speculating that Ryan might just step aside if he can’t muster the votes. The question preoccupying everyone: Who would replace him if that happens?
The biggest name waiting in the wings is Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), a Ryan ally who made an aborted bid for the job last year. But the question marks surrounding McCarthy haven’t gone away, GOP insiders say. Other possibilities include someone else from the current leadership ranks or a compromise candidate from the backbenches.
Any of the alternatives lack the star power of Ryan and would probably have an even harder time corralling the unruly Republican conference. Plus, there’s the major question of whether any of them can actually get to 218 — the number of votes needed to take the gavel.
Ryan and his allies insist he’s not focused on anything but keeping the House majority. They’re confident he would win a floor vote for speaker in January. But with a smaller majority, it might take only a dozen hard-line conservatives refusing to vote for him to deny Ryan another term as speaker.
While some pundits have speculated about a bipartisan deal between moderate Republicans and Democrats to pick the next speaker or tapping a nonmember of Congress for the post, that’s far-fetched at best. If Republicans are in the majority, they will choose the speaker, and the same goes for Democrats if they defy the odds and win the House. That person will be a member of the House.
Here’s a look at some of the top possibilities and their chances of winning the gavel if Ryan does not:
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy
The California Republican briefly ran for speaker last year before bowing out. But McCarthy would have to give it a hard look if another opportunity arose.
The circumstances of Ryan’s departure would, of course, dictate McCarthy’s decision. If Ryan were forced out by the Freedom Caucus or other GOP hard-liners upset over his handling of Donald Trump, the same dynamic wouldn’t necessarily apply to McCarthy, since he backs Trump. But if the Freedom Caucus pushes Ryan out because they’re upset about his performance during the upcoming lame-duck session, or if Ryan steps aside because hard-liners demand too much in return for their support, then McCarthy might decide to pass as well.
There’s no reason to think the Republican Conference would be any easier for McCarthy to control than it has been under Ryan and former Speaker John Boehner. It might well be harder, since Freedom Caucus members are likely to compose a bigger share of a smaller GOP Conference. Plus, the Freedom Caucus refused to endorse McCarthy after Boehner’s retirement, and it’s unlikely to do so now.
Yet McCarthy may be the only Republican who could cobble together the 218 votes. He’s raised millions for members in dozens of states, as well as headlining numerous fundraisers in D.C. He has friendships and alliances throughout the conference. His daily conversations with rank-and-file Republicans give him a better read on the pulse of the conference than perhaps anyone in leadership. And he’d likely have carrots to dangle — spots on the Steering Committee, choice committee seats or assignments, fundraising help, promises to try to move favored bills.
Downsides: Not a policy heavyweight, not a great public speaker, may be too nice in the view of some members.
Biggest drawback: Bailed on the race for speaker before; even close allies wonder whether he missed his moment.
“[McCarthy] has proven that he’s got anywhere from 180 to 210 Republicans that are for him,” said a senior Republican member, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “He’s the only one other than Ryan who can win a floor fight. The question is whether Kevin wants to utilize that power as [majority leader] or go for speaker.”
One more factor to consider: He might have more power staying put and allowing a “compromise” candidate to be chosen as speaker instead. Under that scenario, the speaker would be more coalition head than party leader, while McCarthy would control the floor as majority leader, effectively running the House. And he’d still have the loyalty of many committee chairs and a large bloc of the rank-and-file. Think Tom DeLay and Dennis Hastert.
Chances of becoming speaker: Decent. McCarthy could probably win a floor fight, but may not be able to run the House afterward.
Another current Republican leader
Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) may not believe he has plateaued — the Louisiana Republican wanted to become majority leader had McCarthy moved up to speaker last fall — but many in the GOP Conference think he has.
Scalise gets mostly positive but not rave reviews for his time as whip. He was saved in late 2014 by Boehner, McCarthy and Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana after his 2002 speech to a white supremacist group was revealed; probably not what Republicans want post-Trump. Could he move up to speaker? It’s very unlikely, though Scalise has strong ties with Southerners, who compose about two-fifths of the conference.
GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington is the highest-ranking Republican woman on either side of Capitol Hill. She considered running for majority leader and whip in 2015 before opting to stay put. She’s well-liked, but GOP lawmakers and aides say she probably doesn’t have the support it would take to leapfrog other members of leadership into the speaker’s chair.
As chief deputy majority whip, Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina has received high marks within the conference. Many say he’s as much the whip as Scalise is because of how much work he does on the floor. And he’s certainly sharp enough for the job.
Yet at 41, he would have to jump over a bunch of more senior members to become speaker, making it a long shot. Whip or chairman of the Financial Services Committee are more likely, at least in the short term.
Chances of Scalise, Rodgers or McHenry becoming speaker: Outside at best.
The compromise choices
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas)
After McCarthy bowed out of the speakership race last year, Conaway, who chairs the Agriculture Committee, called a number of his colleagues with his own plug: “I’m willing to put my hand up if people want me to run,” he said.
Several senior Republican lawmakers and aides speculate that Conaway, first elected in 2005, could jump into the speaker race if Ryan steps aside and McCarthy doesn’t have the votes to take the gavel or passes.
Conaway would have a huge advantage out of the gate: the massive, 25-member Texas GOP delegation, which could decide to vote as a bloc for one of their own.
Conaway fans describe him as even-keeled and smart. While not a wonk like Ryan, his background as a certified public accountant shows he grasps detail and fiscal policy. In fact, in 2008, Conaway uncovered a massive fraud inside the National Republican Congressional Committee. And he chaired the Ethics Committee, another unglamorous job that party leaders often tackle on the way up.
“Mike’s a great guy, and I think he’d be a great speaker,” said a senior Republican. “He’s levelheaded and he’s good on the issues.”
Chances of becoming speaker: Conceivable. If it’s not Ryan or McCarthy, Conaway might have as good a shot as anyone.
Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas)
Hensarling, who chairs the Financial Services Committee, is a darling of conservatives. Like Conaway, he could potentially bring a sizable bloc of votes from the Texas delegation.
Combined with support from more conservative elements inside the Republican Conference, he’d be someone worth watching closely in a wide-open speaker race.
Yet Hensarling has underwhelmed some in the GOP Conference in how he’s run the Financial Services panel. He was in leadership — as GOP Conference chairman — and gave that up.
He also has two years left heading Financial Services, his dream post.
Chances of becoming speaker: Slim. Hensarling could get support, but probably not enough to become speaker.
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio)
As chairman of the rabble-rousing Freedom Caucus, Jordan will certainly be mentioned as a potential speaker. He already has: Conservative commentator Sean Hannity floated him as a replacement for Ryan just last week.
But Jordan has made enemies with his take-no-prisoners tactics as head of the Freedom Caucus — lots of them.
“Jordan can’t get more than 30, maybe 40 votes. Never gonna happen,” said one top Republican.
Jordan told POLITICO this fall he has no desire to run the House, anyway. He views his role as as keeping leaders “accountable,” as opposed to being in charge himself.
Chances of becoming speaker: Practically zilch. Jordan can slay the king, but won’t be king himself.
Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah)
Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop may seem like an unusual choice. He’s rarely in the spotlight and often seems annoyed when reporters approach him in the Capitol.
But conservatives like the way he ran the Utah House as speaker in the early 1990s. And ultimately, that’s what the House Freedom Caucus is looking for: someone open to their proposed rules and process changes, which ultimately would empower them.
GOP sources believe Bishop’s views on process make him a viable candidate whom the House Freedom Caucus could support.
Chances of becoming speaker: Low.
Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.)
Like Hensarling, conservatives have a soft spot for Georgia Rep. Tom Price. He scores 91 percent on the ultra-conservative Club for Growth’s legislative scorecard, and he has a lot of natural allies on the right. He’s close to leadership and other chairmen, and he can articulate the conservative message strongly.
But like Hensarling, he has not blown anyone away during his tenure at the Budget Committee. He lost a leadership race to McMorris Rodgers back in 2012, and he probably would have lost to Scalise in a battle for the majority leader post (that vote never occurred). Price hasn’t shown he can do the kind of wheeling and dealing it would take to become speaker.
Chances of becoming speaker: Low.
Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.)
Roskam lost the whip race to Scalise in 2014, but he could jump into the fray if there’s another vacuum in leadership.
Roskam has made new friends since then; conservatives give him props for standing up to Boehner and McCarthy in pushing for a vote to disapprove the nuclear agreement with Iran. Roskam offered a privileged motion on the floor pushing back on the process entirely, arguing the administration hadn’t followed the rules — something conservatives applauded.
As chairman of the Ways and Means oversight subcommittee, Roskam also wielded his gavel to enact major reforms at the IRS, even finding rare success turning a once red-meat issue into a bipartisan crusade. He led the charge, for example, pressuring the IRS and Justice Department into returning millions of dollars’ worth of seized assets to small businesses that had never been convicted of a crime.
Chances of becoming speaker? Low.
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas)
The Rules Committee chairman would love to be speaker. He’d love any job in leadership.
Sessions, who headed the National Republican Congressional Committee when Republicans won the House in 2010, briefly challenged McCarthy for majority leader in 2014 after the primary defeat of Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). Sessions dropped out when it was clear he wasn’t going anywhere.
His name will certainly be floated for speaker if the job opens, but that’s probably it.
Chances of becoming speaker: Very low.
The Darkest of Dark Horses: Reps. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) and Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.)
During the post-Boehner leadership vacuum last year, several lawmakers looked to Gowdy to step up. But the chairman of the House Benghazi Select Committee quickly put the kibosh on it. He often jokes that he’ll retire any day now, and doesn’t seem to have the stomach for the speaker job.
Pompeo flirted with a Senate bid this election cycle and might surface in a leadership race. A graduate of West Point and Harvard Law School, he has a lot of friends on the hard right, but he has yet to hold a chairmanship gavel, let alone the one controlling the entire House.
Chances of becoming speaker: Minuscule.
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