What's Next for House Republicans?
In the hours following Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s stunning announcement Thursday that he’s no longer a candidate for House speaker, Republicans floated a number of names and scenarios for how to move forward, including installing a short-term speaker, leaving current Speaker John Boehner in his post, or enlisting a slew of candidates who have indicated no interest in the job.
On Thursday evening, if anyone had a clear idea of what would happen next, they weren’t talking.
In many ways, the contest for new speaker was cloudier than two weeks ago, when Boehner surprised the political world by announcing his retirement.
In the aftermath of that news, the House had a clear candidate in McCarthy, and the question wasn’t necessarily whether he would run, but whether he could drum up the necessary support to be elected. When McCarthy announced he was out, Republicans leaving the room said they were “shocked” and “stunned,” and it appeared everyone in the room except Boehner and McCarthy were caught off guard. Now, they face a deepening leadership crisis and no clear path forward.
A number of House members suggested filling the office with an interim candidate – a well-respected veteran lawmaker who would be willing to temporarily hold the gavel through the 2016 elections. Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky (who said he’s not a candidate) and National Republican Campaign Committee Chairman Greg Walden of Oregon (who said he’d consider it) were identified as potential interim speakers. Also mentioned were members who are retiring after 2016.
The interim path seems the likeliest one for a conference that, at this point, appears unlikely to come together for the long term.
“That’s what I expect you’ll get,” Nebraska Rep. Jeff Fortenberry said of an interim speaker. “Someone who has very great standing on our side of the aisle, who has a depth of personal relationships, who has wisdom about the institution, who can shepherd us through a the next two months of very tough policy negotiations and has a depth of respect in the body that people will unify around.”
Others thought an interim speaker was exactly the wrong way for the conference to go for a variety of reasons. California Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the Intelligence Committee and a Boehner ally, said it would hurt the party on a practical level heading into 2016.
“The role of the speaker is all consuming, and we have campaigns to run, we have elections to win, candidates to recruit,” Nunes said. “I don’t know if an interim speaker can do that.”
Texas Rep. Bill Flores, head of the conservative Republican Study Committee, also opposes the idea of an interim speaker, but less for practical reasons than for the big picture.
“An interim will not give us the opportunity to cast that big, bold vision that we need,” Flores said. “Interims are caretakers. Caretakers tend to do safe things. The electorate put us here to do big things, to take big steps, and we need to find a leader that will help us take those big steps.”
If it isn’t an interim speaker, the path toward consensus is murky. Both Reps. Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Dan Webster of Florida, the two candidates who were running against McCarthy for the speakership, are still in the race, but neither is seen as able to win consensus within the conference. Most members are looking elsewhere, and the spotlight in particular shone on Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the party’s candidate for vice president in 2012.
Ryan has repeatedly denied any interest in the speakership – he announced within minutes of Boehner’s retirement that he wouldn’t run, and said the job is meant for “an empty nester” who can keep a heavy travel schedule, and not someone like him, who has young children. Ryan also decided against a White House bid in 2016 to gain the Ways and Means chairmanship to enact major tax and entitlement reform, which he said is still his long-term objective.
Ryan issued a statement almost immediately after McCarthy’s announcement Thursday. “While I am grateful for the encouragement I’ve received, I will not be a candidate.” Despite his continued disinterest in the position, however, Ryan is being heavily courted as perhaps the only person in the House who can successfully unite the conference.
Boehner even personally called Ryan twice Thursday to urge him to run for the speakership, the Washington Post reported. Spokespeople for Ryan and Boehner did not return requests for comment on the conversations. McCarthy told National Review in an interview shortly after his announcement that he wanted Ryan to run. And South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy – chairman of the Select Committee on Benghazi who himself declined to run despite being heavily recruited – told National Journal that the two people who could unite Republicans were Ryan, or “the fella that just spoke to us, but he went back to Italy,” a reference to Pope Francis.
In the meantime, Boehner said he would stay on as speaker until the House elected someone to replace him, which could potentially go past the Oct. 30 date he set for his retirement. If Ryan remains opposed to a bid and there isn’t consensus around any of the other candidates, some members said they would prefer to see Boehner stay on through the end of the 2016 election.
It’s unlikely Boehner would have much interest in that, particularly because he’d face the same fractures in the conference and problems with conservative members who go against party leadership. It would likely be even more difficult for him to corral those conservatives with lame-duck status, though there would also be less holding him back from making deals with Democrats.
Rep. Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania moderate who has been particularly critical of the conservatives – he called them the “rejectionist” wing of the party – said the same problems for Boehner would have existed for McCarthy, and the same problems will exist for the next candidate, even though he said he thought Ryan could win the position.
“I said before John Boehner stepped down, those who wanted to take down John Boehner will try to frag the next guy,” he said of McCarthy. “So that’s what we just saw happen. So the question is, who’s going to be the next person to step up?”
Dent predicted that absent a figure like Ryan uniting the conference, it could take a coalition with Democrats to get any candidate beyond the threshold necessary to be elected.
Conservatives, meanwhile, stuck to similar lines they had after Boehner’s retirement: it doesn’t matter who takes over the Republican conference as long as there are changes in process. They want rules changes that empower rank-and-file members and remove some of the power from leadership.
Asked if McCarthy’s announcement was a sign of chaos, Kansas Republican Tim Huelskamp, a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, said, “It is, but in a way it’s really been in chaos for a number of years. We’ve had promises and failures, promises and failures, never following through, which is why John Boehner can’t be speaker anymore and why he can’t pull 218 together for his lieutenant.”
What remains clear is that whoever is speaker, whether it’s a reluctant Ryan taking the position, a reluctant Boehner remaining in command or another member willing to take the leap, the conservative wing of the party will continue to wield great influence over the direction of the House. And with difficult fights looming over raising the debt ceiling and completing long-term budget negotiations, whoever is in charge will have no shortage of crises to solve.