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Speaker Ryan resists calls to step aside for quicker transition to new GOP House leader

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan's (R-Wis.) tenure has been dominated by turbulence, gridlock and high government spending. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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House Speaker Paul D. Ryan insisted Thursday that he would serve until the end of his term, forcefully rejecting the growing calls within the Republican caucus for him to step aside and allow a quicker transition to a new leader.

Ryan’s defiance came as President Trump is being urged to take a hands-off approach to the expected leadership race, in which Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) are considered front-runners to lead the fractious caucus.

A day after Ryan’s announcement, Republicans openly worried about how a lame-duck speaker and uncertainty in leadership would affect a party struggling to unify itself and raise money for midterm elections with the GOP’s House majority in jeopardy. Several Republicans and even some in the White House have raised doubts about whether Ryan (R-Wis.) could stay on the job through the end of the year.

Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.) said he thought the leadership elections would have to be moved up.

“No disrespect to Paul, but quite frankly, you want somebody who’s got skin in the game for after the election,” he said. “I’m thinking that we’re not going to show that kind of patience and at some point in time we’re going to start talking about that.”

Ryan moved to preempt an open succession scramble, telling reporters that he intended to “stay here and run through the tape” until a new Congress is seated in January.

“I’ve talked to a lot of members, a lot of members who think it’s in all of our best interests for this leadership team to stay in place,” he said, before framing the decision in financial terms: “I have shattered every fundraising record any speaker has ever set. . . . It makes no sense to take the biggest fundraiser off the field, and I think almost all of our members see it that way.”

Speaker Ryan will not seek reelection, further complicating GOP House prospects

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan's (R-Wis.) tenure has been dominated by turbulence, gridlock and high government spending. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Trump is facing internal pressure to not weigh in publicly in the leadership race, according to two White House officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations. But it is widely known that Trump enjoys a close relationship with McCarthy, whom the president once publicly referred to as “my Kevin” and has invited to weekend retreats in Florida.

Ryan appeared to give McCarthy an implicit endorsement, praising the existing leadership team and saying that he was “encouraged” that Scalise had made comments deferring to McCarthy.

“What it shows you is that we have an intact leadership team that supports each other, that’s all heading in the right direction,” he said.

The reality is more complicated: Scalise, speaking on Fox News Channel on Thursday morning, reiterated that he would not stand in McCarthy’s way in a leadership race — “I’ve never run against Kevin and wouldn’t run against Kevin” — but his comments fell short of an outright endorsement.

Asked Thursday whether his comment constituted an endorsement of McCarthy, Scalise said that conversation is “way ahead of us.”

After his bid to succeed John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) as speaker fell short in 2015, McCarthy faces persistent doubts that he can persuade the necessary majority of 218 Republicans to elevate him to speaker. Scalise’s path to power would be to emerge as the prime alternative if McCarthy again falters.

Bowing in part to Ryan’s wishes to keep the jockeying under wraps, McCarthy has yet to declare his candidacy to become the GOP’s top House leader and has yet to openly solicit support for any move up the ladder.

Speaking on Fox News himself Thursday morning, to an audience that often includes Trump, McCarthy pledged to advance the president’s priorities rather than his own career.

“What means most to me is that in the next Congress, there is an opportunity for a Republican to be speaker and not Nancy Pelosi,” he said, referring to the House Democratic leader. “We’ve accomplished a lot, and we’ve got a lot more to do on the Trump agenda.”

Ryan is resisting what some McCarthy allies want — a swift transition that allows McCarthy to seize the speaker’s gavel ahead of the November midterms, where Republicans are widely expected to lose seats, and perhaps their majority.

Rep. Tom Graves, a Georgian who chairs an Appropriations subcommittee and is closely allied with McCarthy, has pressed colleagues for a faster process — one that would play out before the end of April, according to GOP lawmakers and aides who have spoken to him.

It is widely understood, those Republicans said, that Graves is speaking for a larger GOP legislative group that does not wish to openly challenge Ryan’s wishes.

Several Republicans, speaking on the condition of anonymity to frankly describe internal discussions, brought up the example of Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the former House majority leader who suddenly became a lame duck when he lost his June 2014 primary. Cantor initially pledged to serve out his term, only to reverse course and resign less than two months later.

Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) said he had been approached by two colleagues who made the case for an accelerated leadership transition. “You know the team, you know the leadership, and then you’ve got a horse to ride through the election cycle,” he said, explaining their thinking.

Some members, he said, were concerned that Ryan could be a less potent presence on the fundraising circuit, where donors are seeking to build relationships with leaders of the future, not the past.

“There are other people saying, ‘How is this going to impact me when I have a speaker, well-known, well respected, but is a lame duck? If he comes to my district, is there as much cachet — not just cash, but draw — versus having someone who could be the next speaker and the speaker after that for a couple of terms?’ ” Shimkus asked.

But numerous other rank-and-file lawmakers think it would be pointless to pick new leadership, given the expected massive turnover among Republicans — where already 40-plus seats are vacant or held by incumbents who are retiring — which could mean a smaller and more ideological caucus.

GOP increasingly fears loss of House, focuses on saving Senate majority

“The push is coming from those who are interested in joining leadership sooner rather than later,” said Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.). “The last thing we need right now in our conference, I believe, is a protracted leadership battle.”

Conservatives, meanwhile, are quietly plotting how they can enhance their own leverage as the process plays out. Hard-liners see an opportunity to extract the kinds of concessions they have sought for years — memberships on prime committees, perhaps even their own seat at a leadership table that has largely been reserved for members of the GOP establishment. In their thinking, a longer-percolating race gives them a bigger role in shaping its outcome.

The hard-line House Freedom Caucus, a group of roughly three dozen conservatives who helped foil McCarthy’s 2015 run for speaker, is expected to play a key role, and its chairman, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), said Thursday that the group would soon start discussing its options.

McCarthy has since improved his standing with the conservative bloc, thanks in part to Trump and to smaller gestures — such as his current effort to push though a package of spending cuts in tandem with the White House.

“After his last run and coming up a bit short, Kevin could have kind of taken his ball and gone home and [said] a pox upon you all,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.). “He did the opposite. He leaned into it. He continued to build relationships, continued to prove himself, and I think he did it the right way. You earn respect from people, I think, by doing that.”

In one sign of the sensitivity of the potential duel, Scalise was invited at the last minute to a Wednesday night dinner of congressional leaders hosted by Trump at the White House — one that had been in the works for week and that only Ryan and McCarthy had been scheduled to attend.

The potential leadership battle was not mentioned during the dinner, according to Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who attended with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

The president, Cornyn said, “was scrupulously neutral, because they were all there.”

Paul Kane and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.