Washington — The long-delayed decision by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan to seek election as the next speaker of the House pretty much extinguishes any flickering hopes by House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, of Jefferson, to move up the ladder of House leadership — at least for now.
Those hopes were mostly dampened when Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, of California, stunned his Republican colleagues Oct. 8 by withdrawing from the contest for speaker. Scalise, No. 3 in the hierarchy to McCarthy’s No. 2, was primed to slide into the vacancy McCarthy would create by his anticipated ascent to the top job.
Scalise’s plans blew up when McCarthy said he would remain as majority leader. But that meant the speaker’s slot was still open. Although Scalise’s name was mentioned among potential candidates for speaker, he never said he wanted the job, and he soon joined the mounting consensus behind Ryan, chairman of the Ways & Means Committee and the Republican vice presidential candidate in 2012.
Ryan initially declined interest, but ultimately acquiesced, despite his concerns about taking time away from his family in Wisconsin. He formally announced his decision Thursday in a letter to House Republicans, all but assuring their endorsement this coming Wednesday and his election by the full House the next day.
Scalise, 50, may have been a long shot for speaker in any case. He is tainted by the same mark that helped doom McCarthy: He’s in the leadership, which makes him a member of the establishment at a time when anti-establishment fever runs hot.
It’s something of an ironic twist for Scalise. Elected by the House Republicans in June 2014 as their whip, with the responsibility for corralling votes on the House floor for the leadership agenda, he beat out two other candidates in part because he promised to bring a fresh, solidly conservative, red-state presence to a team that had included only blue-state Republicans.
Scalise’s opportunity came when one of those blue-state Republicans — Majority Leader Eric Cantor, of Virginia — was upset in a primary by a tea-party challenger, Dave Brat. Cantor stepped down and McCarthy, the incumbent whip, succeeded him as majority leader. Scalise, who came to Congress in 2008, leveraged his position as chair of the Republican Study Committee, an avowedly conservative assemblage that includes most House Republicans, to win the whip contest.
It turns out that Cantor’s primary loss was just the first shock to roil House Republicans — and that his defeat by a right-wing ideologue was a portent of the future shocks. The big one rattled the House Sept. 25, when Speaker John Boehner, of Ohio, said he would quit at the end of October.
Boehner’s rule was imperiled by a coup fomenting in the House Freedom Caucus, a group of 40 or 50 Republicans organized early this year to push the Republican agenda yet harder to right. They want to confront Democratic President Barack Obama and the Democrats in Congress over hot-button issues such as Planned Parenthood, immigration and Obama’s signature 2010 health law.
That approach led to a 16-day federal government shutdown in 2013 that many Republicans believe damaged their brand, and Boehner has sought to avoid a repeat. That has meant bucking a majority of his own party in the House more than once and passing budgets with votes from Democrats and a Republican rump — including Scalise, who lined up behind Boehner as a loyal member of the team. It was one of those votes, in December, that put Scalise in the crosshairs of a right-wing group that broadcast radio commercials in his district accusing him of playing footsie with Obama.
A few days before McCarthy dropped his own bomb, Scalise said he had the necessary support of a majority of House Republicans to succeed McCarthy. But speaker is a constitutional position, elected by the entire House membership, now split 247-188 between Republicans and Democrats. That means the defection of 30 Republicans would cost a Republican candidate the majority needed to win — or a Republican speaker the majority needed to keep his job. That is the math that stymied Boehner and McCarthy.
Ryan is no tea-partier, but he is widely respected and has won enough support from the Freedom Caucus to win Thursday. Scalise will remain as whip, at least until the next regularly scheduled leadership selections after the 2016 elections for Congress — or the next bombshell.
Gregory Roberts is chief of The Advocate Washington bureau. His email address is groberts@the advocate.com and is on Twitter, @GregRobertsDC. For more coverage of national government and politics, follow The Advocate Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.