Updated: 9:51 p.m. | Speaker John A. Boehner’s announcement he’s stepping down sets off a leadership scramble that, while not wholly unpredictable, puts Republicans in Congress at a crossroads: Will they continue down a similar path of leadership or choose an entirely new direction?
Many Republicans might publicly say they want change, but there’s good reason to believe they will simply advance Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy to speaker, and move another Republican in leadership — Majority Whip Steve Scalise or Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers — to majority leader, which in turn would set off an election for one of those positions. In the everyone-moves-up-one scenario — which is entirely possible — there would only be new faces in the lower rungs of leadership. McCarthy’s ascent to speaker looks certain, though he apparently will face a challenge from Florida’s Rep. Daniel Webster.
Even the House Freedom Caucus looks like it could take a pass on putting forward one of its own. When the HFC met Friday, most of the discussion centered around talking with speaker candidates and voting as a coalition, members said.
Of course, the roughly 40-member group would still effectively maintain veto power over a speaker, as that position will still need to be confirmed on the House floor. But voting for McCarthy on the floor probably won’t be as politically toxic for members as a Boehner vote, though outside conservatives such as radio host Mark Levin were already mobilizing against McCarthy Friday.
Boehner: ‘McCarthy Would Make an Excellent Speaker’
Much of the real action will be for majority leader. Both Scalise and McMorris Rodgers all but officially launched their bids late Friday, with multiple sources confirming to CQ Roll Call that each lawmaker was placing calls to members asking for pledges of support.
Georgia Republican Tom Price, chairman of the Budget Committee, appears to be in the mix as well, setting up another face-off with McMorris Rodgers (the two both vied in 2012 to be head of the Republican Conference, with McMorris Rodgers prevailing).
Rules Chairman Pete Sessions is also said to be eyeing a run, though he could opt to go for majority whip. Texas Republicans huddled in Sessions’ Rules Committee office in the Capitol on Friday and discussed their options. According to a source, the delegation was insistent it have one of its own in the race, and Sessions appeared open to the idea of running for whip instead of majority leader.
Even if Sessions decided against a run, Texas might have a dog in the fight with Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, who announced through a spokeswoman Friday he is “considering his options” and will have a decision by early next week on the leadership races.
Illinois Republican Peter Roskam, the former chief deputy whip who lost to Scalise in the whip race last year, said he is going to “work hard to make sure we get the leadership we need, not just settle on the fastest, easiest choice.”
Whether that means he’ll run for anything remains to be seen, but members and aides reported last week that Roskam was among a group of Republicans who were already jockeying for positions even before Boehner announced his resignation.
Should the leadership reshuffle go according to the current cursus honorum, McCarthy would move up to speaker, Scalise would move up to majority leader and there would be yet another race at whip.
Scalise, however, could be at a disadvantage with Chief Deputy Whip Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., eying a run for the No. 3 spot. McHenry was instrumental in helping Scalise win his leadership race last year, and was rewarded for his efforts with the appointed chief deputy position. But McHenry is now preoccupied with on his own bid for elected leadership, and he has even siphoned off some staff to help him. Matt Bravo, Scalise’s well-regarded deputy floor director, is on loan to McHenry to help with his whip race operation.
Still, while McHenry would have the support of many Republicans in leadership, a Sessions candidacy would certainly give the current chief deputy a run of this money. Dennis A. Ross, R-Fla., also announced Friday he’s running for whip, and Markwayne Mullin, an Oklahoma Republican in his second term, is said to be interested in the position as well.
There’s plenty in flux — not the least of which is what positions there will be a race for — but the large slate of Republicans interested in leadership seems to be missing one key constituency: conservatives.
The last time there was a leadership race, in June 2014, conservatives looked for a candidate to coalesce behind. But when no one palatable emerged, Raúl R. Labrador stepped up to run. The Idaho Republican could again run for a spot — as could another conservative such as HFC Chairman Jim Jordan. The early indication, however, is that the HFC thinks it could be more influential as a solid voting bloc.
Yet another X factor could be Webster, who ran for speaker earlier this year. He told Fox News’ Sean Hannity Friday afternoon he plans to run again.
Thomas Massie, R-Ky., was pushing for a Webster speakership challenge before Boehner announced his retirement, and while Massie seemed to be backtracking some of that support on Friday, he certainly seemed supportive of Webster’s overall message.
“Daniel Webster talks about process,” Massie said Friday, “and that’s what someone needs to talk about.”
While Boehner doesn’t leave until the end of October, a successor will probably be selected well before then. Leadership elections could take place soon, meaning candidates with existing whipping operations will have a natural leg-up.
The process will play out in a similar fashion as the sudden election last year after former Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost his Virginia primary bid.
Lawmakers will vote behind closed doors via secret ballot, and tallies will most likely not be publicized. If McCarthy moves up, there would be an election for majority leader. If Scalise were to then move up, there would be an election for majority whip.
The only difference is that the speaker will need to win on the House floor as well, which could present anti-establishment Republicans with a unique opportunity to foul up the process.
Either way, even with clear lines of succession, there’s plenty of uncertainty — and the conventional wisdom could be upended at any time.
On Friday, New Jersey Democrat Bill Pascrell Jr. recounted when former Speaker Newt Gingrich announced his retirement and former Rep. Bob Livingston was supposed to take the gavel.
“Livingston was supposed to be the guy,” Pascrell said, “we went out for a couple beers.”
“There were six of us piled into a car and we get the phone call, ‘it’s not going to be Livingston anymore,’ and we all know what happened then,” Pascrell said, referring to the surprising rise of Illinois Republican J. Dennis Hastert.
Emma Dumain and Hannah Hess contributed to this report.
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