House Speaker Paul D. Ryan made clear Friday that he wants his current No. 2, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), to take the helm of the House Republican Conference and potentially the speaker’s gavel when Ryan leaves office in January.
“We all think that Kevin is the right person,” Ryan (R-Wis.) said during a taping of NBC’s “Meet the Press” set to air Sunday.
The No. 3 leader, Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.), also moved to calm a potentially raucous scramble by endorsing McCarthy on Friday. But that is unlikely to be the last word on a GOP succession process that stands to play out over the course of months in a midterm election year.
Ryan reiterated Friday that any leadership election would wait until after the November elections, and his endorsement came hours after Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a prominent and polarizing conservative, acknowledged that he is considering a challenge to McCarthy — sending an emphatic signal that the Californian will not have a cakewalk.
“There is no speaker’s race right now. Paul Ryan is the speaker,” Jordan said Friday. “If and when there is, I’ve been urged by colleagues to consider that, and I am definitely open to that. Right now, though, the focus has got to be on the next six months, us keeping the majority.”
The interest from Jordan, a co-founder of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, scrambles a race that till now was shaping up as a duel between McCarthy and Scalise. McCarthy has long faced doubts from hard-right lawmakers such as Jordan. A conservative revolt forced him to bow out of the previous speaker’s race, in 2015, paving the way for Ryan.
Several Republican lawmakers said Friday that, barring an unlikely deal between McCarthy and the conservative bloc, Jordan’s run all but ensures that the leadership elections will be put off until November. Ryan has personally interceded to tamp down an effort to accelerate his departure and hold earlier elections, meeting Thursday with Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), a McCarthy ally who had been pushing colleagues for a swift transition.
Ryan, who has already raised $55 million this election cycle, said Thursday that it would be foolish for Republicans to keep his fundraising talents on the sideline. And speaking to NBC on Friday, he said leadership elections would create a distraction that the GOP does not need ahead of the midterms.
Graves declined to say Friday whether he still wanted Ryan out sooner. “I can assure you he wants what’s best for our conference, and so we’ll look forward to the days ahead,” he said.
Scalise’s endorsement came after two days of coy statements that many Republicans interpreted as a signal that he was ready to pounce if McCarthy’s bid faltered.
“Whip Scalise’s focus remains on moving our conservative agenda forward and maintaining our Republican majority,” spokesman Chris Bond said Friday evening. “When a Speaker’s race is called, he’ll be supporting Leader McCarthy.”
Rep. Douglas A. Collins (R-Ga.), a junior member of the House leadership team, said Friday that it was “still up in the air” whether the leadership scramble could be kept in check.
“We’re still only two days after this, and I think people are having to get used to this idea,” he said, referring to Ryan’s announcement that he wouldn’t seek reelection. “If anybody can do it, the speaker can, but we’ll just have to see how that works out.”
McCarthy has beaten back conservative opposition before. In 2014, he won the majority leader position over Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho), who would go on to co-found the Freedom Caucus.
But that contest required McCarthy to win only a majority of House Republicans. In the speaker’s race, the victor would need to secure a majority of all House members — 218 votes if all 435 are voting — and Jordan’s candidacy could make it impossible for McCarthy or any other candidate to reach that threshold.
Ryan said Friday that McCarthy is now better positioned to lead. “What’s changed is, we have gotten a lot done,” he said. “This leadership team has come together and gelled, this conference has been unified, and we’ve actually moved the ball and gotten things done.”
McCarthy has closely tended his relationships across the Republican conference, and he has doled out millions of dollars in campaign funds to colleagues — a traditional method of climbing the leadership ranks. But his key asset has been his close bond with President Trump, an alliance that has blossomed over the past two years, to the point where McCarthy is a frequent sounding board and interpreter for the president on legislative and political matters.
“We’ve partnered with him on a lot of different legislative items, and he’s just been a great ally of the administration,” said Marc Short, the White House legislative affairs director.
But Short added that Trump is also close to Scalise and has grown closer after Scalise was badly wounded after being shot by a would-be assassin last June.
More generally, Trump is being advised to remain neutral in the leadership derby for now — both by his political advisers and by lawmakers, who are mindful that the races tend to hinge more on the internal politics of the House than a president’s wishes.
“The president would be well advised to stay out of it,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). “There’s no good that comes out of playing in these elections when you’re not a member. The president, he can rest assured he’s going to get a quality person to work with.”
Informed of Ryan’s endorsement, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president has a “a great relationship with Kevin McCarthy” but offered no word on who Trump wants as the next speaker.
Jordan represents a wild card. While he is not known to have a close relationship with Trump, he is immensely popular in conservative grass-roots circles that can be influential with the president. He is also a frequent presence on Fox News and other conservative media outlets, where he has recently been a leading critic of the FBI and Justice Department’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email practices and of the circumstances that led to the federal probe of the Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia in the 2016 election.
Jordan, who holds seats on the House Oversight and Judiciary committees, has called for a special counsel to investigate both probes — a position that has been wildly popular with the Republican base but rejected by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and top GOP congressional leaders.
Inside the House, he holds significant appeal to lawmakers from conservative districts who want a more pugilistic stance from GOP leadership. “Jim’s a fighter,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), a fellow hard-liner. “He’s scrappy, and if Jim Jordan was the speaker of the House, we’d be winning so much we’d be tired of winning.”
Jordan is considered unlikely to win the speakership — or the minority leader position, should Democrats capture the majority — but he could tie up dozens of conservative votes. That could force the eventual winner, whether McCarthy, Scalise or someone else, to meet conservative demands that could range from House rule changes to committee assignments to minor leadership posts.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), the Freedom Caucus chairman, stopped short of endorsing Jordan but made clear that McCarthy has yet to win the support he needs to be elected speaker.
“I can tell you that, as of today, no one has the votes to get to 218,” he said. “So anybody who says, ‘Well, this person can’t be the speaker,’ there is no one in this body who can be the speaker other than Speaker Ryan.”
Paul Kane, Seung Min Kim and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.