WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan’s decision to leave Congress at the end of the year touched off immediate speculation Wednesday about who will replace him as the Republican leader — and about what it means for President Trump and Democratic hopes to retake the House in the coming midterms.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is regarded as the logical choice. He is close to Trump, having courted the president longer than most other high-profile Republicans. The two get along well and talk often.
But the Californian has historically been viewed suspiciously by the most conservative members of Congress.
Early indications from the White House offered a mixed picture. Some officials told Yahoo News that McCarthy has the inside track. One former White House official said either McCarthy or Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana could get Trump’s backing.
“Both Kevin McCarthy and Scalise are very popular with the White House and close to the president,” the ex official said.
One Trump ally said the president prefers House Majority Whip Scalise.
“Scalise … [is] a better story, and DJT loves narratives,” this person said.
Scalise’s story is that he was shot last June in an attack on a congressional baseball practice, surviving a near-fatal wound to the hip. He was one of four people wounded in the shooting, but the only member of Congress. It has made him something of a mythic figure in the House.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who leads the hardline Freedom Caucus, could also make a play for the speakership or one of the other top posts in leadership.
One of the most senior Republican members of Congress predicted to Yahoo News that McCarthy would be able to lock up the speakership, or the Republican leadership if Democrats win back the House early next year, after the fall elections. Ryan plans to serve out his term.
It’s likely that the issue won’t be settled for a while.
“Members are in shock and not sure if they really mentally want to go there yet,” said one House Republican leadership aide.
Ryan said he was leaving primarily to spend more time with his teenage children before they leave home. “I did not seek this job. I took it reluctantly. But I have given this job everything I had. And I have no regrets,” he said.
“I think we have achieved a heck of a lot,” he said.
Ryan’s departure is a short-term victory of sorts for Trump. The speaker and the president have worked together since Trump’s election, but were never close or all that comfortable with each other.
Ryan opposed Trump during the Republican primary and waited until June 2016, after Trump had locked up the nomination, to endorse him. A Ryan ally at the time told Yahoo News that the speaker “despises” Trump and “hates his guts.”
Ryan worked with the president to pass tax reform legislation, which nonetheless fell short of Ryan’s hope for a permanent restructuring of the tax code. Ryan has continued to criticize Trump at times, although he hasn’t opposed him on legislation.
The same Ryan ally lamented that the speaker’s retirement was “a casualty of the party surrendering its ground to a celebrity outsider.”
“Ryan is the kind of figure a party should strive to create: ideologically minded but temperamentally moderate, elected in a swing district, worked his way up in Congress, not a flashy performer. He is bowing out to a different model of leadership,” the ally said.
But Ryan may have more freedom to speak his mind now that he is not running for reelection. One prominent conservative Trump critic expressed her hope that Ryan would do so.
“He’s finally free of political chains. Time to put country over Party. He should remove [Rep. Devin] Nunes from Intel Committee, have a vote on Dream Act, move legislation to protect [Special Counsel Robert] Mueller, and denounce Trump’s unpresidential actions & words at every turn,” Ana Navarro said on Twitter.
But a Ryan ally said he was “skeptical” that Ryan would take a more confrontational stance. “Lame duck will probably make him more — not less — deferential to where his members are,” the Ryan ally said.
Ryan himself told reporters that he was “grateful” to Trump for giving Republicans the opportunity to pass big legislation like the tax cuts last year. He also said he does not think Trump will fire Mueller, a determination he said he had reached because he has “been talking to people at the White House.”
The speaker’s intention to retire also may be another signal of trouble ahead for Republicans, and for Trump.
“To attribute Ryan leaving to Trump rather than the impending blue wave is inaccurate,” tweeted Ben Shapiro, a popular conservative writer and speaker.
Shapiro also pointed out that Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are more responsible than Trump himself for the biggest conservative wins of the last year. “Republicans celebrating Ryan leaving as a win for Trump should consider that Trump only won the battle over attitude,” Shapiro said. “Every major policy achievement with the exception of the Jerusalem move is largely attributable to Ryan (tax cuts) and McConnell (Gorsuch).”
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