Watching Speaker Paul Ryan struggle recently to craft House majorities on controversial immigration and funding bills makes one wonder why anyone would want the job he is giving up after the current Congress.
In fact, with just four months until November’s elections, battles for the No. 3 job in the federal government are well under way within both parties. And the outcome is even more in doubt than the results of the elections themselves.
In the GOP, speculation since Ryan announced his retirement has centered largely on whether his top deputy, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, can put together enough votes to succeed him.
That assumes Republicans maintain their majority, something Democrats don’t concede and most analysts consider the less likely November election result. “We will win,” the top House Democrat, former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, confidently told the Boston Globe. “I will run for speaker.”
But even if her party succeeds, she’s no sure thing either. Indeed, the prospect is growing that neither McCarthy nor Pelosi will be elected speaker when the new House convenes in January. The reason is that it takes 218 votes — a majority of the full House — to elect the speaker. If November’s winning party holds just a narrow margin — a definite possibility — its internal divisions will come into play, increasing uncertainty about the ultimate result.
On the GOP side, members of the Freedom Caucus, some 30 of the party’s most conservative members, are talking of backing one of their own, perhaps Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio or the group’s chairman, Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina. In 2015, the threat of Freedom Caucus defections prevented McCarthy from inheriting the speakership when John Boehner resigned, leading to Ryan’s election as a compromise.
Since any GOP majority in the new House would almost certainly be far narrower than the party’s current 23-vote margin, the Freedom Caucus might well hold the balance of power, again forcing the party to pick someone other than McCarthy. In that event, one person who might emerge is Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the Republicans’ popular No. 3 leader.
Scalise is considered more acceptable to the Freedom Caucus than McCarthy. An uncertain factor: the latter’s close relationship to President Donald Trump, depending on how GOP members regard the president after what could be a very difficult election for them.
Even more complications exist on the Democratic side, where a narrow majority could jeopardize Pelosi’s hopes of regaining her role as the first woman speaker. An important warning flashed in the March special congressional election in Pennsylvania when the victorious Democrat, Rep. Conor Lamb, refused to commit to backing Pelosi.
So did Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, last week’s surprise primary winner in New York. And other likely Democratic winners are also withholding support from the former speaker, whose liberal image has made her a recurrent GOP political target.
Her potential problems go beyond ideology. It’s hardly surprising that many congressional Democrats and candidates believe their party needs younger leadership than their three septuagenarian leaders: Pelosi, 78; Minority Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland, 79; and Assistant Minority Leader Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, 78 later this month.
Ocasio-Cortez complicated the outlook by upending the No. 4 Democrat, Rep. Joe Crowley of New York, 56, who had positioned himself to be the next leader. Indeed, his focus on his growing national role left him out of touch with the New York City district whose changing demographics he no longer epitomized.
On the surface, Crowley’s loss helps Pelosi by removing her top potential rival. But the fact that he lost to a 28-year-old Latina dramatized the degree to which Democrats want change, and an array of potential leadership candidates has started to surface.
The key to both parties’ leadership races may be whether members are choosing their candidate for speaker — or picking the minority leader.
To become leader of the minority party only takes a majority of its elected members, something both McCarthy and Pelosi may be able to achieve, unless their party performs so poorly in November its members demand change. Pelosi, especially, would be in danger if Democrats don’t regain the House.
But if the election is for speaker of a closely divided House, neither McCarthy nor Pelosi may be able to achieve the near solidarity of their own members to gain the required 218 votes.
What happens then is anybody’s guess. Congressional leadership races are notoriously quirky and hard to predict…
So it’s safe to say no one can be too sure how this one will come out.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.