House Republicans are in an historic state of chaos, torn between two ideological poles with no clear sense of who will serve as their next leader, and no idea of their governing agenda with several legislative battles in the coming weeks.
California Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s decision to abandon his bid for speaker Thursday afternoon just moments before a planned closed party election has set of a leadership scramble not seen in more than a decade. What makes this even more extraordinary, though, is there’s no obvious line of succession to power.
McCarthy was dogged by a host of factors. He thought he would win the speakership, but be crippled by the same problems that dogged Speaker John Boehner. He said Republicans created the Benghazi Committee to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency, which alarmed Republicans.
Now, the party is searching for a new answer.
The general consensus inside the House Republican Conference is that there is just one man standing who can garner the 218 votes needed to be speaker: Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. He has resisted calls to run in the past, but the top two Republicans – Boehner and McCarthy – have asked him to reconsider. He has canceled his fundraising appearances for the next 48 hours, and is considering a bid.
Republicans are floating the names of other lawmakers, including Reps. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, Mike Conaway and Bill Flores of Texas, John Kline of Minnesota and Tom Cole of Oklahoma. Some of these men – most notably the retiring Kline – have been mentioned as caretakers of the office until after the 2016 elections. Reps. Daniel Webster of Florida and Jason Chaffetz of Utah, the two men who ran against McCarthy, are still in the race for the speakership.
Because McCarthy will remain majority leader, there will be no race for his position or whip. Reps. Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Tom Price of Georgia have both spent the last several weeks running for the majority leader job. Reps. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, Pete Sessions of Texas and Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma will all be forced to abandon their campaign for whip.
Boehner planned to resign effective Oct. 30, but he says he will now stay on as speaker until Republicans select his successor. Boehner canceled an appearance on NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” after McCarthy withdrew from consideration.
The chaos harkens back to another dark time for Republicans. In Dec. 1998, during the impeachment proceedings of President Bill Clinton, Louisiana Rep. Bill Livingston plunged the House into chaos by admitting to extramarital affairs, and resigning from Congress. Livingston was the speaker designate, slated to take the job from the outgoing Newt Gingrich. The admission stunned Capitol Hill, and the country.
Rep. Tom Delay of Texas, then the majority whip, sensed an opportunity, and rallied his vote-counting operation behind Rep. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Within a matter of hours, while other Republicans hesitated to run for speaker, DeLay lined up the votes for Hastert. The race was over before the other hopefuls could organize. Hastert helped sooth the battered Republican Conference. To this day, he is the longest-serving Republican speaker.
Seventeen years later, the Republicans need a soothing force once again. And that process will begin Friday morning, when the party retreats to a room in the Capitol basement for a special GOP conference meeting. Party leaders want to get the Republican lawmakers on the same page.
“If we’re going to be strong, we need to be united,” McCarthy said at a news conference after his announcement. He said the party needs a “new face,” and he did not want to win the job with the bare-minimum level of support.
The conservative House Freedom Caucus continues to loom large. The bloc of roughly 40 Republicans endorsed Webster Wednesday, and vowed to vote together in the closed party election.
That was a key moment for McCarthy, demonstrating to him how difficult the contest would’ve been, he said. For a period of time, McCarthy considered forcing Republicans to vote in an open ballot, to show he could get the 218 votes needed to win the speakership on the floor.
Instead, he stepped down.