For all the change Americans voted for when they sent Donald Trump to the White House, they called for strikingly little change in the makeup of Congress. A net total of just six seats in the House and two in the Senate flipped parties last week.
And in response to that forceful endorsement of legislative continuity, House Republicans on Tuesday reelected their entire senior leadership team without so much as a roll-call vote. Paul Ryan, the speaker whose job was thought to be in jeopardy as recently as a week ago, won the unanimous support of the 240-member House Republican conference. So did Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, and Conference Chairman Cathy McMorris-Rodgers of Washington state, the only woman among the eight GOP leadership positions.
“Unity is the word of the day,” proclaimed Representative Bill Johnson of Ohio as he left a party meeting in the Capitol.
Ironically, the man who Ryan and his team had to thank for this outpouring of support was the candidate who divided Republicans like few others have in modern history. The shock of Trump’s victory instantly defused the rising tensions within the House GOP’s ranks, as the conservatives who were planning to blame Ryan in the event of his defeat fell in line instead.
Trump’s imprint on the Capitol was immediately apparent as Republicans returned to Washington for the first time in two months. Entering the basement caucus room where they have their weekly meetings, GOP lawmakers found red “Make America Great Again” hats sitting on their chairs. After the meeting began, Ryan made clear that he and his leadership had the support of the incoming Trump-Pence administration. “If the speaker is good enough for Donald Trump, I think he should be good enough for the Republican conference,” Representative Mark Sanford of South Carolina said afterward.
In a further demonstration of unity, the three members who formally nominated Ryan before the afternoon leadership vote included a leading member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, Representative Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, and Representative Chris Collins of New York, a strong Trump supporter who will serve as the House GOP’s liaison to the incoming administration.
While Republicans moved swiftly to a vote of confidence in their leaders, Democrats decided they needed more time to determine if they were going to keep theirs. Nancy Pelosi, the 76-year-old Californian who has run the Democratic caucus for more than a decade, reluctantly agreed to delay leadership leadership elections until November 30. Younger Democrats have chafed at the tight grip that Pelosi and fellow septuagenarian Representatives Steny Hoyer of Maryland and James Clyburn of South Carolina have kept on power. Pelosi remains the favorite to stay on, but the two-week delay could help generate momentum for Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio, a 43 year old who is considering a challenge as Democrats seek ways to reconnect with the working-class, Midwestern voters who deserted them this fall.
Ryan was a picture of optimism as he vowed to work “hand-in-glove” with Trump, forgiving both the slights and the outright denunciations the president-elect slung his way for months. “Welcome to the dawn of a new unified Republican government,” the speaker told reporters triumphantly.
Yet although he now has the support of his conference, Ryan is not completely in the clear. To stay on as speaker, he must limit defections by Republicans to win 218 votes on the House floor in January. And between now and then, he must steer lawmakers toward passage of appropriations bills to fund the government into the new year, achieve consensus on priorities for 2017, and avoid fights with the incoming Trump administration that could erode his standing with the president-elect’s loyalists in Congress. The newfound unity that carried the day on Tuesday, in other words, may not last long.