Some Republicans are speculating that House Speaker Paul Ryan might just step aside if he can’t muster the votes. | AP Photo

By John Bresnahan and Rachael Bade
Published: 10/27/16 – 11:55 PM EDT
Updated: 10/27/16 – 11:55 PM EDT

  • Republicans are already buzzing about who might step up if the speaker steps aside.

Speaker Paul Ryan’s suddenly shaky future as House speaker is already prompting closed-door talk among House Republicans about who’d take over if he steps aside or is spurned by archconservatives.

Between his falling out with Donald Trump and his ongoing standoff with the House Freedom Caucus, some Republicans are speculating that Ryan might just step aside if he can’t muster the votes. The question preoccupying everyone’s mind: Who would replace him if that happens?

The biggest name waiting in the wings is Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), a Ryan ally who made an aborted bid for the job last year. But the question marks surrounding McCarthy haven’t gone away, GOP insiders say. Other possibilities include someone else from the current leadership ranks or a compromise candidate from the backbenches.

Any of the alternatives lack the star power of Ryan and would probably have an even harder time corralling the unruly Republican conference. Plus, there’s the major question of whether any of them can actually get to 218 — the number of votes needed to take the gavel.

Ryan and his allies insist he’s not focused on anything but keeping the House majority. They’re confident he would win a floor vote for speaker in January. But with a smaller majority, it might take only a dozen hard-line conservatives refusing to vote for him to deny Ryan another term as speaker.

While some pundits have speculated about a bipartisan deal between moderate Republicans and Democrats to pick the next speaker or tapping a nonmember of Congress for the post, that’s far-fetched at best. If Republicans are in the majority, they will choose the speaker, and the same goes for Democrats if they defy the odds and win the House. That person will be a member of the House.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy

The California Republican briefly ran for speaker last year before bowing out. But McCarthy would have to give it a hard look if another opportunity were to arise.

The circumstances of Ryan’s departure would, of course, dictate McCarthy’s decision. If Ryan were forced out by the Freedom Caucus or other GOP hard-liners upset over his handling of Donald Trump, the same dynamic wouldn’t necessarily apply to McCarthy, since he backs Trump. But if the Freedom Caucus pushes Ryan out because they’re upset about his performance during the upcoming lame-duck session, or if Ryan steps aside because hard-liners demand too much in return for their support, then McCarthy might decide to pass as well.

There’s no reason to think the Republican Conference would be any easier for McCarthy to control than it has been under Ryan and former Speaker John Boehner. It might well be harder, since Freedom Caucus members are likely to make up a bigger share of a smaller GOP Conference. Plus, the Freedom Caucus refused to endorse McCarthy after Boehner’s retirement, and it’s unlikely to do so now.

Yet McCarthy may be the only Republican who could cobble together the 218 votes. He’s raised millions for members in dozens of states, as well as headlining numerous fundraisers in D.C. He has friendships and alliances throughout the conference. His daily conversations with rank-and-file Republicans give him a better read on the pulse of the conference than perhaps anyone in leadership. And he’d likely have carrots to dangle — spots on the Steering Committee, choice committee seats or assignments, fundraising help, promises to try to move favored bills.

Downsides: Not a policy heavyweight, not a great public speaker, may be too nice in the view of some members.

Biggest drawback: Bailed on the race for speaker before; even close allies wonder if he missed his moment.

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