Political News

The House Returns to Deep Uncertainty Over Both Parties’ Leadership

Posted July 8, 2018 9:49 p.m. EDT
Updated July 8, 2018 9:54 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — The House returns from its July Fourth recess this week in a state of remarkable uncertainty, with both Democrats and Republicans facing open questions about their leaders’ futures and neither party certain of which will be in control after November’s elections.

“Sometimes things have to be torn down before they can be built back up,” said Rep. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y. “And I think we are in the tearing-down phase, at least in the House.”

For Democrats, the loss in a primary last month of a popular lawmaker seen as a potential House speaker has injected fresh uncertainty into an inevitable and messy struggle over control of the caucus.

In some quarters, simmering frustration with their longtime leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, 78, has given way to whisper campaigns among potential challengers and public calls for the passing of the baton to a younger generation. Her top lieutenant and longtime rival, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, 79, checked into a Washington hospital with pneumonia last week, underscoring the concerns among some in the party about the age of the current leadership.

With the retirement of Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin at the end of the year, Republicans face their own fight for control. The embarrassing rout of “compromise” immigration legislation last month resurfaced concerns that Ryan’s power may be waning. And while the party has a clearer order of succession, it remains to be seen if Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the majority leader, can consolidate the support to replace Ryan.

One potential challenger, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, fell under a cloud last week with the emergence of allegations that he knew about and did not act on accusations of sexual abuse when he was a wrestling coach at Ohio State University. Another, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, appears to be mounting a public-relations campaign before the release of his book, just days after the election, chronicling his arduous recovery after he was shot at a Republican congressional baseball practice.

Both struggles are playing out against the backdrop of November’s elections, in which control of the House could tip to the Democrats for the first time in nearly a decade.

And hanging over it all is President Donald Trump, who has reshaped both parties, moving them toward the political poles even as he fortifies a hunger for tougher leadership. Some Democrats are demanding brash torchbearers to beat back “Trumpism” and counterpunch hard when the president lashes out. Republicans appear ready to embrace the person most unabashedly allied with Trump. A scandal like Jordan’s once could have forced a quick resignation, but his relentless defense of the president has buttressed his resilience.

“It’s hard to recall when there’s been a moment where both parties have done so much head-scratching and soul-searching about what their respective futures should be,” said Doug Heye, who served as a top aide to former Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., when he was majority leader.

“This reflects both parties’ going through the same dynamics — increased tribalism and distrust, which leads to increased frustration from a base that feels they were overpromised and underdelivered,” he continued.

For Democrats, much of the energy is directed toward Pelosi, who has led the caucus for more than 15 years and developed a reputation as a masterful legislator and fundraiser. Pelosi has made clear she wants to be speaker again next year and has dismissed talk of a replacement. Her allies argue that she remains the only Democrat capable of leading the restive caucus.

“Leader Pelosi enjoys the overwhelming support of House Democrats, and that will continue into the majority she’s so focused on winning,” said Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesman.

But with the primary loss of Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York, the No. 4 House Democrat and a leading candidate to succeed her, voices of dissent have come out in force, calling for the mantle to be passed to someone younger or with a clearer strategy to regain ground in places like the Midwest. Many Democrats say the question is less whether than when.

“Generational change is coming to the House Democratic caucus sooner rather than later, there is no question about that,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, a potential candidate to replace Crowley. “But we should not put the cart before the horse.” Pelosi is also facing criticism from some within the Congressional Black Caucus, a powerful bloc at the base of her leadership coalition, after she publicly criticized Rep. Maxine Waters, a senior California Democrat, for urging supporters at a rally in Los Angeles to confront members of Trump’s Cabinet in public.

Pelosi wrote on Twitter that the president’s “daily lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable.” Pelosi has since met with Waters and come to her defense as Trump attacks her. But among some black lawmakers, her initial sentiment was viewed as out of touch with the party’s base and disrespectful to a party elder with her own national following.

Last week, dozens of black female leaders and their supporters sent a letter to Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader in that chamber, to express “profound indignation and deep disappointment” over their response to Waters’ comments, and accused the leaders of leaving a powerful black voice undefended.

Higgins, a moderate Democrat from Buffalo, said he feared that Pelosi had consolidated power to a dangerous degree. Under her leadership, he said, Democrats had failed to put forward a clear, compelling narrative on even bread-and-butter issues like infrastructure, jobs and health care. Pelosi’s aides say the comments are merely sour grapes over a policy dispute.

She is, Higgins said, “in denial, and she is out of touch.”

“There is a reckoning,” he continued. “Whether it comes before the November midterms or after, I’m not quite sure. But I will tell you this: The debate about this, the discussion internally, is going to get much more active.”

Most Democrats are emphatic that such discussion be kept at a minimum until after November. The last thing the party needs, they argue, is to give Trump additional ammunition to vilify Pelosi.

For now, there is no consensus or even a leading candidate to challenge Pelosi. Hoyer is considered by many to be too old to satisfy younger lawmakers demanding change. Other, younger lawmakers — Jeffries or Reps. Cedric L. Richmond of Louisiana, Cheri Bustos of Illinois and Adam Schiff of California — are thought to have interest in entering or rising up the leadership ranks but have yet to demonstrate a movement behind them.

“I really hope that as we move forward, that we understand the importance of having voices from the Midwest, from swing districts,” Bustos said. “When you look around the leadership table and nearly every single person comes from either the West Coast or the East Coast, I don’t think that’s a true representation of our nation.”

Rep. Elijah Cummings, a well-respected Maryland Democrat, is said to be willing to entertain leading the caucus, but only if he is drafted to do so. In an interview, Cummings said he anticipated that Pelosi would be able to hang on. And Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio, whose challenge to Pelosi after the 2016 elections garnered 63 votes, said he was weighing his options in light of Crowley’s loss. If a younger member does not emerge to succeed Pelosi, he said another option could be to elevate Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 Democrat, who turns 78 this month, to serve as a bridge of sorts to the next generation.

“This has been part of the critique all along,” Tim Ryan said. “There’s no plan for the future, and any organization needs to have a succession plan.”

Alternatively, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., said Hoyer could be a bridge to the next generation, describing him as a “safe harbor in a fluid and unpredictable situation.”

On the Republican side, Paul Ryan has faced a rocky few months since April, when he announced his retirement. Hard-line conservatives rebelled to defeat the farm bill in May, and restive moderate Republicans tried to force the House to hold votes on immigration over Ryan’s objections.

Just before the Fourth of July recess, Ryan heralded a broad immigration overhaul as a “great consensus bill,” only to watch it go down in flames on the House floor.

Still, Ryan appears on track to hold on to the speakership in the coming months, even as Republicans look out for any maneuvering by his two likeliest successors, McCarthy and Scalise. Ryan has backed McCarthy to succeed him, and Scalise, the majority whip, has said he would not run against McCarthy. But McCarthy stumbled in his effort to succeed former Speaker John Boehner, and Scalise is seen as waiting in the wings if McCarthy falters again.

It also remains to be seen what role Trump will play in exerting influence as Republicans position themselves as potential successors to Ryan.

“The speaker’s race is a two-way race,” said Rep. Ryan A. Costello, R-Pa. “It’s with members, and it’s with Trump.”

“And if you don’t already have enough votes, especially on the right, Trump could get you to the finish line,” Costello said.

Conservative activists have pushed Jordan as their desired speaker, a highly unlikely possibility but one that highlights the political challenge of assembling a broad enough coalition to win that post.

“Help us draft Congressman Jim Jordan for speaker of the House,” blares the website of FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group that plans to hold a rally on the Capitol grounds in late September to promote him.

"The problem with McCarthy is he wears the mantle of the leadership that’s been disappointing on spending and on Obamacare,” said Adam Brandon, the group’s president, alluding to the passage of a $1.3 trillion spending bill this year and Congress’ failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

But Jordan, a founder of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, has been on the defensive in recent days because of a job he held more than two decades ago, when he was an assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State. An investigation is now underway into accusations of sexual abuse by a former physician at the university, and several former wrestlers have said that Jordan was aware of the misconduct.

He has denied knowing of any abuse, and some on the right have come to his defense by suggesting that he is the subject of a smear campaign.

“Look, the timing makes you wonder,” Jordan told reporters in Ohio last week. “All I know is it’s not true.”