(Bloomberg) -- House Speaker Paul Ryan moved to head off an internal Republican Party battle over who should eventually succeed him, saying Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has the backing of his biggest potential challenger, No. 3 Republican Steve Scalise.
“I was encouraged that Steve Scalise this morning said that he thinks that after the election that Kevin McCarthy ought to be the person to replace me,” Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican told reporters Thursday. “I think that’s encouraging because what it shows you is that we have an intact leadership team that supports each other, that’s all heading in the right direction.”
A leadership battle that splits the party would add to the already precarious political position House Republicans are in heading into the November congressional elections. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to win the House majority in November, and as many as 50 Republican-held seats now are regarded as competitive with voters registering their dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump in primaries and special elections.
Republicans were already discussing whether McCarthy or Scalise should be their next leader, even before Ryan announced Wednesday that he won’t seek re-election in November. While Ryan is vowing to stay as House speaker through the end of the year, he may find that he has limited ability as a lame duck to rally the conference around his deputy, who ran for the job in 2015 and dropped out because he didn’t have enough support.
Those limits were highlighted Thursday as several conservatives said they wouldn’t vote for McCarthy under any circumstances.
Scalise, the House GOP’s chief vote-counter, said in an interview with Fox News Thursday that he won’t challenge McCarthy, but he stopped short of fully endorsing him to succeed Ryan.
"I’ve never run against Kevin and wouldn’t run against Kevin. He and I are good friends,” Scalise said. But that does not address what might happen if a third candidate emerges, and it appears McCarthy can’t collect a majority of party votes.
When asked later at the Capitol whether he supports McCarthy as the next speaker if Republicans hold the House, Scalise said that issue is “way ahead of us.”
“With all the intrigue that’s going on we’ve got to stay focused on our agenda or else Nancy Pelosi is speaker and we are going to be talking about who is going to have minority positions and we don’t want to have that,” he said.
Scalise previously told Politico he’s interested in being speaker someday, and he is broadly popular among his colleagues. Some Republicans say it’s not a certainty McCarthy could win the secret internal party balloting to become the party’s new top leader, to be conducted in late November or early December. Even if McCarthy wins that GOP vote over Scalise, or any other candidates, some Republican lawmakers say he could still face difficulty in winning a public vote of the entire House of Representatives for the speaker’s job.
Barring an early abdication of Ryan’s leadership -- which he ruled out on Thursday -- the next House speaker will be elected by a simple majority of the next Congress in January. Regardless of which party controls the House, it’s likely to be by a very narrow margin. That means the candidate for speaker must have votes from all or nearly all members of the party to get the required total of 50 percent plus at least 1 to become speaker.
If Democrats prevail in the November elections, the Republican leadership opening will be for minority leader, a much less powerful position.
Multiple House Republicans -- conservative and moderate -- cautioned Thursday the GOP leadership race needs to be open, and that Ryan should not presume to pick his successor. Ryan weighing in on the choice wouldn’t account for the will of any newly elected Republicans who’ll take office after the November elections.
Another Republican said McCarthy doesn’t have enough support among GOP conservatives to win a majority of the party’s votes in the House. Those conservatives are also going to demand more say in the House agenda and will leverage their votes to achieve that, the Republican said.
Republican Representative Walter Jones of North Carolina said that even if Republicans manage to hang on to a slim majority he doesn’t see McCarthy being able to win a vote for speaker.
There also is agitation among at least a few Republicans to move Ryan out of the way now rather than wait until after the election. Representative Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican, said letting the speaker linger as a lame duck leaves an “improbable vacuum” in the Republican ranks.
But other Republicans said a leadership race now would be counter-productive.
Drama and Distraction
"We don’t need the drama or distraction," Representative Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania said in an interview. “It takes oxygen out of the room and it really distracts us from getting things done.”
Adding to the Republican intrigue 24 hours after Ryan’s announcement is an early preoccupation for other roles further down the leadership ladder. There are a number of other party jobs in play -- and the prospect of being in a minority party is not diminishing interest in moving up the ranks.
Some Republicans worry party cohesion could soon collapse amid this jockeying and a perceived vacuum after Ryan’s surprise announcement -- just when member focus is most needed on keeping the House majority.
"I think the reality of the situation is this is D.C. There are a lot of ’Type A’ personalities here," said Representative Tom Reed, a New York Republican. "And they are going to immediately start positioning as this situation develops."
Several Republican lawmakers, who asked not to be named when discussing internal decisions, said potential leadership aspirants include current rank-and-file and some newer House members. Beyond the race for party leader, there is expected to be jockeying on who will become the next Republican "whip" in control of a team of vote counters, for the conference chairmanship, and for other jobs, including some top Republican committee posts.
Republican Conference Chairman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions of Texas, and deputy Republican Whip Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, are leading candidates for higher roles. Representatives Ann Wagner of Missouri, Drew Ferguson of Georgia, Republican Study Committee Chairman Mark Walker of North Carolina -- and even veteran Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma have also been floated for leadership jobs.
Cole and Republican Conference Vice Chairman Doug Collins of Georgia are both said to be making plays for top committee posts, but are not being ruled out for other jobs.
A handful of caucus-leading kingmakers are expected to weigh in on these races, especially Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, who chairs the conservative House Freedom Caucus, a group of about three-dozen members.
"My hope, and this has been my advice, is we need to focus," said Reed, a Ways and Means Committee member who says he has no designs on a leadership job. "In order to have a conversation about who is the next Speaker -- we have to be in the majority."
Ryan said he intends to remain as Speaker through the midterm elections, and he’s spoken with “a lot of members who think it’s in all of our best interest for this leadership team to stay in place.”
“It’s obviously in our interest to keeping our majority, that every player is on the field fighting for this majority,” Ryan said. “I think almost all of our members see it that way as well.”
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