Scramble is on to replace Ryan as speaker

Rumors have been swirling for months on Capitol Hill that Speaker Paul Ryan will either resign his seat or not serve as speaker if he returns to Congress next year.  This has set off something of a scramble among top Republicans to position themselves to replace him if the speaker exits the stage.


Two top members of Paul Ryan's leadership team, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise, have begun angling for his job in the event the speaker calls it quits after the election.

They're closely monitoring the moves of the other and quietly courting Republicans who could help them clinch the top post, according to 20 GOP lawmakers and aides interviewed for this story.

Neither man is actively rounding up votes at this point, and both of them downplayed the possibility of a looming clash.  Scalise said in an interview that he would not challenge McCarthy for speaker – "I'm not running against Kevin for anything," he told POLITICO – while McCarthy said he's focused solely on keeping the House in November and pursuing President Donald Trump's agenda.

But Scalise also expressed interest in leading the conference someday – remarks that only intensified simmering speculation in GOP circles about his intentions.  Adding to the intrigue, some of Scalise's allies have urged him to be ready if McCarthy falls short for speaker, as he did in 2015.  And some of McCarthy's allies discount Scalise's vows not to mount a direct challenge, noting Scalise's willingness to attempt to leapfrog more senior Republicans in the past.

"Everyone is talking about this," said one veteran Republican House member who asked not to be named of the brewing rivalry.  "We're sizing them up, seeing who would be a better fit.  It's the prism that we look at them through now."

As Ryan's No. 2, McCarthy has the clearest path to the speakership, though it's far from a lock.  Distrust among the conference's right flank contributed to his failed 2015 bid, when Ryan was recruited as a white knight.  McCarthy did not lose interest, however, and he is trying to forge new alliances as well as patch up a once-rocky relationship with the House Freedom Caucus ahead of a potential second run.

By any measurement, Ryan's tenure as speaker has been a failure.  He has failed to keep the caucus together on key budget votes and let the Democrats basically have their way throughout his speakership.

But the fact is, Ryan has the votes to be speaker as long as he wants.  The party has been factionalized under his leadership, and he has the advantage of leading the biggest faction: "establishment Republicans."  But it's unclear whether McCarthy or Scalise could drum up enough support to replace him if he steps down.

That's why many Republicans on the Hill are looking for another candidate who might be able to unite the party.  One name sometimes bandied about is Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the deputy whip.  While closely associated with Ryan, Blackburn would give the party something of a new face.  She has earned high marks from many for her outreach and could emerge as a compromise candidate – much as Ryan himself did.

Will the GOP still be in the majority next January?  Dire predictions about Republicans losing the House are just that: predictions.  Democrats are trying to nationalize the race to maximize the anti-Trump vote, but they still have to put up viable candidates who can win.  That is by no means certain as acolytes of Bernie Sanders are dominating many open seat primaries on the Democratic side. 

Ryan may decide he's had enough and refuse to run in 2018.  If that happens, expect a war for control between the conservative Freedom Caucus faction and the more establishment Republicans.

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