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Paul Ryan Can Save Congressional Republicans From Civil War—Here’s How

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Eric Cantor's still technically the number two Republican in the House, but the expectation that he will abdicate his leadership position is drawing a familiar cast of members—particularly red-state conservatives—into the power vacuum. As is so often the case, there's a pragmatic way for Republicans to handle the dilemma, and then there's what hardline conservatives want.

Cantor's presumptive exodus has the potential to create cascading effect, as junior members of leadership vie for promotions against emboldened conservatives hoping to displace them altogether. But nobody saw Tuesday's results coming, and thus nobody's fully laid the groundwork to launch a challenge. And the longer it takes for consensus candidates to present themselves, the greater the risk that Battle Royales will break out at every leadership level under the Speaker.

House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy has long wanted to succeed Cantor, but won't ascend uncontested. Pete Sessions, who lost the whip race to McCarthy wants to take him on. And other conservatives want Texas Rep, and Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling to bigfoot both of them.

That sets the stage for a secondary fight over who will be the whip. Chief Deputy Whip Pete Roskam has had his eye on that office for a long time, but as the Washington Post's Robert Costa reports, so does Republican Study Committee chair Steve Scalise.

And on down the line.

The likelihood that one or more of these contests will erupt into a bitter spectacle in the middle of an election year raises the obvious question of whether the party wouldn't be better off settling on a stopgap, and delaying the shakeup until after the election. On Twitter, I mused that it would be wise, hypothetically, for a bridge figure like Paul Ryan to serve as Majority Leader on an explicitly interim basis until November. As it happens, Ryan doesn't want a leadership position, or at least a permanent one, but could do the job for a few months to stem revolt without abandoning his goal of chairing the Ways and Means Committee in the 114th Congress.

But it's a testament to the lack of leadership in the party, or to its members' resistance to being led, that a pragmatic solution to the problem isn't really being considered at this point, and probably doesn't exist.

UPDATE: It's official. Cantor will step down as House Majority Leader at the end of July.