Agriculture and immigration fights among the House Republican Conference have led to a week of frustration and palace intrigue about Speaker Paul Ryan’s future, but as tempers cool, a core truth remains: Ryan will leave when he wants to, and as of now, he doesn’t want to.
Ryan and his team have made a catchphrase of sorts out of his suggestion that he will be “running through the tape” when he retires at the end of his full term. He held a signing ceremony for three bills on Thursday and promised, “There’s more to come.”
So in addition to the reasons to stay that he laid out in his retirement announcement—honor, duty to his constituents, and a sense that there is work yet to do—there appears to be an element of pride in play. Nobody wants to promise to finish a marathon only to fall short.
Ryan, as he is wont to do, reminded reporters that he did not want to be speaker in the first place but instead was drafted into the job. The reminder could well have also been directed to members and staff who have been grumbling that Ryan is a weakened speaker as a lame duck. Those critics pointed to the farm bill’s failure last week and a revolt by moderates and conservatives over immigration as proof positive that he should leave Congress soon.
Ryan, however, cautioned that despite the legislative hiccups of last week, a nasty leadership election would be worse.
“Obviously, I serve at the pleasure of the members. Those are the people that drafted me into this job in the first place. But I think we all agree the best thing for us is to complete our agenda and not wedge into the middle of our agenda divisive leadership elections,” he said.
Indeed, the election would be tough. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who would like to succeed Ryan, is hardly a lock for the post, which he ran for unsuccessfully in 2015. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said he and McCarthy have talked about the prospect of holding a speakership election this year, but McCarthy said Tuesday that was not true.
Although members speculate that a quicker election would be better for McCarthy’s chances to win hold of the gavel, being seen as conniving to push Ryan out the door would likely harm his reputation among the many members who still like and respect Ryan.
“It’s not happening. They can talk all they want,” Rep. Tom Rooney said. “Those of us that try and stay above the fray here need a leader too.”
Many members think a midyear speaker election would not only distract from the legislative agenda, but negatively affect the party’s chances at holding the House by spotlighting the party’s dysfunction. Members in tough races are acutely aware of that.
“There is a faction out there that would like the speaker to step down, but it would be a mistake for us to change course midstream and also have a speaker’s vote that could be contested,” Rep. Robert Aderholt said.
There may be some upside for McCarthy in waiting, too. If Republicans can hold the House, contrary to many election-watchers’ predictions, he will share in the glory. If they lose, he needs only a simple majority of the conference to win a minority-leader race, rather than a full 218 votes on the House floor.
On the other hand, the longer the wait until the leadership election, the better for conservative insurgents like the members of the House Freedom Caucus. The group has shown it is quite willing to use any point of leverage to advance its legislative ends. Every leadership move between now and then will be scrutinized, and anyone eyeing the gavel knows it.
“Obviously, everything has a factor on who the next speaker will be,” Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows said recently, when asked about whether the House’s immigration debate will affect the speaker race.
That is among the reasons why the group has been reluctant to bring up a motion to vacate, the procedural tactic by which it can try to force the speaker out of his seat and trigger a new election. The Freedom Caucus’s threat to use the procedure against former Speaker John Boehner was viewed as a factor in him deciding to quit.
“I hear all the same speculation, and I’m not engaging in that,” HFC member Jeff Duncan said. “You’re not going to see a motion to vacate from us. It’s up to Paul.”
Still, the next few months will not be easy, just as the last few years have not been. In wading into the swampy minefield of immigration, leaders risk dividing their conference and creating ripple effects for the leadership election. In short, a lot can change between now and November.
“I’m always a proponent of stability and consistency,” Rep. Frank Lucas said. “The speaker ultimately decides his own fate. But there are so many undercurrents—leadership races, policy issues, struggles within the factions within the conference. In my time here, this is probably a complicated period as I have ever seen.”