The House Returns to Deep Uncertainty Over Both Parties’ Leadership


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 Representative Brian Higgins, Democrat of New York. “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, Representative 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, Representative Steny H. 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 D. 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 Mr. Ryan’s power may be waning. And while the party has a clearer order of succession, it remains to be seen if Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the majority leader, can consolidate the support to replace Mr. Ryan.

One potential challenger, Representative 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, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana, appears to be mounting a public relations campaign ahead of 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 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 Mr. Trump. A scandal like Mr. 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 Representative Eric Cantor, Republican of Virginia, 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 over-promised and under-delivered,” he continued.

For Democrats, much of the energy is directed toward Ms. Pelosi, who has led the caucus for more than 15 years and developed a reputation as a masterful legislator and fund-raiser. Ms. 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.

Ms. Pelosi wrote on Twitter that the president’s “daily lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable.” Ms. Pelosi has since met with Ms. Waters and come to her defense as Mr. 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 Ms. Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader in that chamber, to express “profound indignation and deep disappointment” over their response to Ms. Waters’s comments, and accused the leaders of leaving a powerful black voice undefended.

Mr. Higgins, a moderate Democrat from Buffalo, said he feared that Ms. 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. Ms. Pelosi’s aides say the comments are merely sour grapes over a policy dispute.

She is, Mr. 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 Mr. Trump additional ammunition to vilify Ms. Pelosi.

For now, there is no consensus or even a leading candidate to challenge Ms. Pelosi. Mr. Hoyer is considered by many to be too old to satisfy younger lawmakers demanding change. Other, younger lawmakers — Mr. Jeffries or Representatives Cedric L. Richmond of Louisiana, Cheri Bustos of Illinois and Adam B. 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.

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

Still, Mr. 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, Mr. McCarthy and Mr. Scalise.

Mr. Ryan has backed Mr. McCarthy to succeed him, and Mr. Scalise, who is now the majority whip, has said he would not run against Mr. McCarthy. But Mr. McCarthy stumbled in his effort to succeed former Speaker John A. Boehner, and Mr. Scalise is seen as waiting in the wings if Mr. McCarthy falters again.

It also remains to be seen what role Mr. Trump will play in exerting influence as Republicans position themselves as potential successors to Mr. Ryan. “The speaker’s race is a two-way race,” said Representative Ryan A. Costello, Republican of Pennsylvania. “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,” Mr. Costello said.

Conservative activists have pushed Mr. 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.



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