House Republicans scrambled Friday to find a suitable alternative to be their next leader, a day after the presumed favorite for the post, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, abruptly dropped his bid for speaker, throwing the caucus — and the party — into chaos.
Pressure has mounted on Paul Ryan, the popular young Wisconsinite who was his party’s 2012 vice presidential nominee, to heed the call of many of his colleagues, who say he is best suited to mend the fractious divisions within the conference that led to the ouster of Speaker John Boehner and the fall of McCarthy.
“I did everything except carry his gym bag to get him to do it,” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., told reporters in the Capitol Friday morning.
Other names that have been floated include Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, another member well respected among conservatives and moderates alike; John Cline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education Committee; Tom Cole, R-Okla., the deputy whip and a Boehner ally; and Issa.
But some members of Congress and analysts warn that the next House speaker — whether Ryan or someone else — has little chance of taming a conference bent on being this unruly, with the repercussions likely to be felt soon by the American public.
The Republican Party’s historic majority in the House, they said, has proved not only ungovernable but also incapable of governing the country. The agenda of the party is now largely driven by the party’s right flank — 40 or so members of the House Freedom Caucus, who have insisted that their legislative leaders shun all compromise and take the country to the brink if necessary to forward their policy agenda.
“Sometimes you need to hit rock bottom,” McCarthy told The National Review on Thursday about what it would take to proceed.
Those urging Ryan to consider a bid say that he, unlike McCarthy, would have the 218 votes in the full House of Representatives necessary to take the gavel. But it’s unclear if Ryan will have political capital beyond that to get members to step into line.
“[Ryan] could help bring people together, but at the end of the day, it’s not who we put in the job but how we change the underlying political dynamic that got us in this situation,” Rep. Charlie Dent, a moderate Republican from Pennsylvania, told reporters on Friday morning, coming out a closed-door strategy session for House GOP members. “How do we move bills? How do we get functionality — doing the most basic things that we’re supposed to do?”
The take-no-prisoners tactics of the hard-line members in 2013 led to a three-week government shutdown over funding for the Affordable Care Act and a near breach of the nation’s debt ceiling when GOP lawmakers refused to raise the nation’s spending cap over fiscal concerns. Many of the same members urged Boehner to shut down the government over federal funding for Planned Parenthood, the embattled women’s health organization and abortion provider, and threatened his ouster if he failed to toe the line.
Although those issues have largely been resolved, other critical deadlines now loom for Congress. A temporary spending bill that is funding the federal government expires on Dec. 11. Legislation to fund the nation’s transit system is urgently needed. Most significant, Nov. 5 is the deadline to once again raise the nation’s spending cap, according to the Treasury Department, with disastrous consequences for the global economy if lawmakers can't come to an agreement.
“At this point in time, the House is dominated by a group of conservatives that don’t feel any need to engage in any of the basic necessities of governing,” said Jim Manley, a former longtime aide to Senate Democrats. “I don’t think the Lord himself could be elected speaker right now. Someone on the far right would have complaints.”
The irony, said John Hudak, a fellow in governance studies at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said GOP House members, many of them hailing from deeply conservative districts, are unlikely to face electoral consequences for their insurgency.
“There are a lot of Americans in conservative districts who want their representatives to behave in exactly the way they’re behaving,” he said.
The GOP brand and other candidates competing in closer 2016 elections are a different story.
“If Republican antics in the House wreak havoc on the American economy or have the prospect of wreaking havoc on the American economy, Republican senators seeking re-election are going to pay the price, and the Republican nominee for president is going to pay the price,” Hudak said. “The House is causing the trouble, and everybody else has to deal with the consequences.”