Is Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy launching a coup?
Congress has been buzzing with reports that allies to McCarthy, the heir apparent to the Republican speakership, have “entertained a plan to push House Speaker Paul Ryan out of his post over the summer” in conversations that have even reached President Donald Trump, the Weekly Standard’s Haley Byrd first reported. White House budget director Mick Mulvaney publicly confirmed conversations to that effect and further speculated such a move would have the added benefit of embarrassing House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, whose caucus has grumbled about her iron grip on Democratic leadership.
Ryan, who is not running for reelection, has said he will remain in his speakership until the end of his term, warning against a huge intraparty leadership fight in the middle of a contentious election year. Needless to say, if the reports are true and Republicans want Ryan to step down early, that would indicate he might be facing an uprising.
The speaker’s position in the Republican conference has come under scrutiny in the past week — especially after the farm bill failed on the floor Friday, and as support for a discharge petition on immigration grows despite leadership’s efforts to whip votes against it. Reports in Politico, the Hill, and the Washington Post have portrayed a Republican conference frustrated by a lame-duck leader. Asked to respond to those complaints, Ryan said, “obviously I serve at the pleasure of the members.” A formal petition to oust Ryan would need the support of a majority of the House.
Meanwhile, McCarthy, who still works closely with Ryan and has publicly stood behind his decision to stay on as speaker, has denied reports that there’s been any conversation about kicking Ryan out early.
Simply put, there’s drama. And Republicans may not be able to avoid a messy fight over who Ryan’s successor will be.
Is McCarthy actually trying to oust Ryan?
On Tuesday, McCarthy stood by Ryan’s side in the weekly House Republican press conference and denied reports that he and his allies have been musing about pushing Ryan out before summer’s end.
“I want to be clear that I read that report and the report is not true,” McCarthy told a room of reporters. The Weekly Standard stands by its reporting.
Over the weekend, Mulvaney told a Fox News reporter that he had “talked with Kevin about this privately but not as much publicly,” regarding the possibility of Ryan stepping down earlier.
“Wouldn’t it be great to force a Democrat running in a tight race to have to put up or shut up about voting for Nancy Pelosi eight weeks before an election? That’s a really, really good vote for us to force if we can figure out how to do it,” Mulvaney continued, hinting at the fact that Pelosi’s leadership would also come up for an election.
McCarthy said that conversation didn’t happen. “No way did we ever have any conversation about Paul leaving.” As the Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes put it, “They’ve either spoken about forcing an early vote or they haven’t. One of them isn’t telling the truth.”
Either way, it’s an open secret on Capitol Hill that there’s a contingent of Republicans unhappy with Ryan’s decision to stay on as speaker through the elections. Shortly after Ryan announced his retirement, one Republican congressional aide speculated to Vox that he wouldn’t be able to withstand the pressure to leave before Election Day.
For now, Ryan’s allies say the speaker remains in a good position.
“He’s a pretty strong guy,” Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), who’s on Ryan’s leadership team as a deputy whip, quipped. “CrossFit. P90x.”
The speakership race is already happening, whether Ryan wants it or not
Ryan’s case for staying in the speakership post until Election Day is simple: A major party fight in the middle of an election year, when Republicans are trying to convince the public to let them hold on to power, would be a bad look.
“I think we all agree that the best thing for us is to complete our agenda and not wedge in the middle of the completion of our agenda a divisive leadership election,” Ryan said Tuesday. The idea is that if Republicans can stick to their agenda — tout their tax bill, talk about how they increased military funding and deregulated banks — then they can stay in the majority in November.
There’s just one problem: The race for speaker has already begun. It began the moment Ryan announced he would retire at the end of this term; some say even before. And at times, like with this McCarthy story, those behind-the-scenes negotiations bubble to the surface.
McCarthy’s path to the speakership, while blessed by Ryan, is far from certain. The future speaker needs a simple majority of the entire House, about 218 votes, to gain control. Assuming Democrats will stand united against whomever Republicans nominate, any Republican faction with roughly two dozen votes could stop a possible nominee in his or her tracks.
Already, the Freedom Caucus, which has 40 members, has floated their former chair Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) to enter the race. He told reporters that Tuesday that “if and when there’s a speaker race, I expect to be part of that discussion.” After all, in 2015, McCarthy’s first bid for the speakership was put to an end after an archconservative revolt.
It’s possible that could happen again. And that’s if Republicans manage to hold on to power in November. Which is all to say that the infighting and campaigning has already begun, whether Ryan stays in his leadership position or goes.
“This is the time of the year where I get all the area codes I’ve never seen before on my phone,” Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) told the Weekly Standard about the already lively debates over the next Republican leader.
Paul Ryan is a lame duck. Has he lost control of the conference?
With the leadership fight spilling into the open, Republican lawmakers who just saw the farm bill go down on the House floor are left asking what’s next. Ryan staying as speaker isn’t quelling intraparty tension — what if he can’t push policy through either?
The narrative around a House moderate revolt against leadership is already growing, now on the topic of immigration. Bucking leadership, more and more Republicans are signing on to a discharge petition to force votes on multiple immigration bills. The petition, started by Rep. Jeff Denham (R-CA), is only a few votes shy of forcing leadership’s hand for an immigration fight in late June.
“There is a clear frustration among our members that we haven’t had a series of votes on immigration and there’s no clear understanding of what would get a majority on the House floor,” McHenry said.
House Republican leaders have made it clear: They don’t want their members to sign on to the discharge petition. They say the process will devolve into chaos, that it will guarantee nothing that can actually pass will become law. They also fear it will reveal deep discord in the party, in a contentious election year, no less — basically the same arguments Ryan has made about staying in his post.
House Majority Whip Steve Scalise said Tuesday that his team is working hard to stop the petition from going forward.
“We don’t like discharge petitions,” Ryan said last Thursday, adding that it “loses control” on the House floor. What Ryan means is he loses control over when and how to vote on immigration, if at all.
And if it’s a push coming from moderates — who have been more in line with leadership in the past year and a half than conservatives have — this fight is a major sign that Ryan’s position in the party is slipping.