In the race to succeed Paul D. Ryan as House speaker, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has one major enemy: time.
Ryan’s decision to not run for reelection sets up an unusually long race to choose his successor, creating a campaign that is out in the open but almost in a state of suspended animation.
McCarthy (R-Calif.) became the clear front-runner to move up one spot and become speaker after Ryan’s Wednesday announcement — assuming Republicans hold onto the majority. That was solidified after Ryan (R-Wis.) endorsed him in an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” set to air Sunday and then his other biggest rival, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), endorsed him late Friday.
But McCarthy has been here before. He was the prohibitive favorite to succeed John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) in 2015 when he announced his resignation, but McCarthy wilted under pressure from conservatives and withdrew from contention.
That campaign was just 13 days. This one is slated to last at least seven months.
“We’re still in the first phases of this and everybody wants to write the end chapter,” said Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.), a junior member of Ryan’s leadership team.
If the GOP keeps the House, McCarthy may be challenged by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a staunch conservative in the House Freedom Caucus. Assuming all Democrats vote for one of their own, Jordan could effectively deny McCarthy a simple majority if he can hold two dozen conservatives to his side.
That’s the sort of showdown that could serve as a negotiating tactic: Just enough conservatives can hold out support until McCarthy gives in to their demands on process and policy issues. Freedom Caucus members tried hard to say Jordan’s potential candidacy was about more than just tactics.
“There is no race for speaker at this point; there is no bargaining chip,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the caucus.
In case of a GOP loss in November’s midterm elections, Republicans have to fill just the positions of leader and whip. That could mean McCarthy essentially stays in his current spot — and that Scalise does too. Only the speaker receives a full vote on the House floor, so the Freedom Caucus would be powerless to block McCarthy or Scalise in that scenario.
Amid all that uncertainty, there’s another major issue that Republicans have to confront: They have almost no bench.
Sure, Scalise is a popular figure, even more so after surviving last year’s baseball practice shooting. If McCarthy falters amid another conservative uprising, Scalise might be able to rally enough support to claim the speaker’s gavel.
But after that, the Republican ranks are quite thin. Very few members of the GOP caucus have the necessary combination of ambition and stature.
Almost half of the committee chairs beat Ryan to the punch and already announced their retirement. Term limits were set to kick in, and they also recognized that committee work is not valued the way it used to be.
Jason Chaffetz, a Republican from Utah and a onetime rising star, quit Congress early last year to become a TV news personality, handing over the gavel of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee to Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.).
Gowdy, who was once pushed to run for leadership positions, lasted seven months as chairman before announcing he would retire at the end of this year.
This leaves Republicans without one of their preferred go-to players in a crisis: the seasoned committee chairman taking charge from outside the faltering leadership team.
Ryan served that role after McCarthy could not get enough support to take over from Boehner, jumping from his chairmanship of the influential Ways and Means Committee to the speaker’s office. In 2006, Boehner won the race to become House majority leader after a successful run chairing the Education and Workforce Committee, promising to clean up an ethically challenged leadership team. He went on to become minority leader and then speaker in 2011.
The party also went with a committee chairman in November 1998, when Bob Livingston of Louisiana won the internal Republican vote to succeed Newt Gingrich as speaker after a four-year run chairing the Appropriations Committee. But that time, it didn’t last long — Livingston backed out a few weeks later after revelations about a past affair arrived amid Republicans’ push for impeachment of President Bill Clinton for lying about an affair.
Today, there is no Chairman Ryan or Chairman Boehner — or even Livingston.
Even before Ryan’s announcement, McCarthy took steps that many saw as an attempt to appease conservatives. He scheduled a vote on a constitutional amendment to require a balanced budget and began negotiating with administration officials to come up with a bill to claw back some of the $1.3 trillion federal spending plan that just passed last month.
The balanced-budget vote fell well short of the two-thirds majority required, and the “rescission” bill is dead even before its arrival. But each move was backed by the Freedom Caucus.
Allies of both McCarthy and Scalise fear that a long campaign will lead to months and months of new demands, along with more intense media coverage of both potential speakers. But despite worries that those would weaken them, the movement to push up the elections began to fizzle by Friday.
The appetite for holding immediate leadership elections fell to the recognition that Republicans first need to pull together and withstand the Democratic push to win the majority in November.
“I want to see and make sure that we are focused on keeping this majority, and I believe the speaker can do that,” Collins said.
For now, most Republicans seem content just not thinking about it, and when the time comes, no one is really certain how the chips will fall.
“Anybody in the freshman class, incoming freshman class, none of them will be speaker,” said Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.). “Anybody who might remotely be speaker has 100 percent name ID among those of us that will vote. So we don’t need to campaign; this is a fall issue.”
As for McCarthy, the potential next speaker? He’s not saying anything publicly for now.