With House Speaker Paul Ryan’s announcement that he’ll retire from Congress at the end of his current term, a new leadership battle is brewing inside the Capitol – setting up a 216-day fight for the Speaker’s gavel.
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House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise are widely viewed as the immediate frontrunners to succeed Ryan atop the House Republican Conference.
Winning the speakership will require majority control over the House – a daunting task for Republicans bracing for a blue wave in this fall’s midterm elections.
McCarthy, R-Calif, withdrew from the race for Speaker in 2015 after John Boehner left Congress, as lawmakers whispered about problems in his personal life. But his friendship with President Donald Trump - who has called him "my Kevin" - could help his standing among many Republicans who were previously unwilling to support him.
As recently as this week, the Majority Leader's office was working with the White House on a proposed package of spending cuts, in an indication of the California Republican's influence and close ties within the Trump White House.
This time, McCarthy isn’t revealing much about his potential aspirations to move up the leadership chain, downplaying the urgency to mount a campaign for Speaker.
“There is no leadership election and Paul is speaker right now,” McCarthy told reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday.
Scalise suffered a life-threatening gunshot wound during a shooting at a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria, Va., last June, turning him into a household name – a rarity for members of the House of Representatives.
While Scalise has publicly said he would not challenge McCarthy for the position, one source close to the Louisiana Republican cited McCarthy’s withdrawal from the speaker’s race in 2015 as a reason for Scalise to be prepared to enter the race in McCarthy’s absence.
“I think right now we gotta focus on our job, we still have a job to do for the American people,” Scalise told reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday morning. “And I’m focused on working with President Trump to make sure we get our agenda passed.”
Scalise is also popular with House conservatives, which could give him an advantage among the House GOP conference's right flank, which is expected to make up a larger percentage of House Republicans after the midterms following a record-breaking tsunami of Republican retirements.
In 2016, House Republicans held their leadership elections on the Tuesday following the election. If that precedent holds true, the GOP will vote on their positions on Nov. 13, 2018. An aide at the House Republican Conference did not immediately respond to an inquiry on the leadership election's timing.
If Ryan has his way, he’ll retain the speaker’s gavel until the end of the 115th Congress, capping 20 years in Congress.
“I am not resigning,” Ryan, R-Wis., said. “I intend to serve my full term as I was elected to do, but I will be retiring in January leaving this majority in good hands with what I believe is a very bright future.”
Nevertheless, Rep. Mark Meadows, the chairman of the Freedom Caucus, suggested it might not be realistic for Ryan to serve as a lame duck speaker, telling reporters the leadership race will begin “immediately.”
“They won’t wait for nine months,” Meadows, R-N.C., told reporters. “I obviously think there is a leadership race that probably started a few weeks ago and will pick up steam.”
Meadows, who said he hopes Ryan serves out his term, says he’s not interested in the job.
“You know leadership has never been on my bucket list and it’s not on my bucket list today in spite of this announcement,” Meadows said.
As Ryan noted Wednesday, few House speakers leave Congress on their own terms. Former Rep. Tip O'Neill was the last speaker to retire from office in 1987, and every speaker since the Massachusetts Democrat has either resigned and left Congress early or lost the majority and control of the House.
"I know most don't go out on their own terms and [former Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid just did this, and he announced he wasn't going to run, and he stayed on as Senate leader and that's what I am going to do," Ryan said.