By Russell Berman - 12/01/13 06:00 AM EST
The post may not come open for a while, but the next generation of Republican leaders is waiting for the day that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) decides he’s had enough of a job he’s famously compared to “a hole in the head.”
Boehner has said he intends to remain Speaker in 2015 if Republicans hold the House majority, but the political battering he has endured for nearly three years has many in Washington wondering whether he will retire when his term ends next year.
Yet the Ohio Republican emerged from last month’s government shutdown with a stronger hand internally, defusing, at least in the near term, any threat of a leadership challenge.
His job security has been bolstered in another way: Few Republicans seem to think they could do it better.
“I just don’t see how anyone could want this job” in the current political environment, said one Republican, who, like others interviewed for this article, would only speak anonymously in discussing Republicans who might follow Boehner.
If Boehner steps aside after the next election, here are five Republicans who could replace him:
1) Eric Cantor (Va.)
As Boehner’s chief lieutenant, the House majority leader would begin any leadership race as the prohibitive favorite. A prolific fund-raiser, Cantor has built a wide base of support within the conference and developed relationships with many of the younger conservatives in the influential class of 2010. Cantor and Boehner have worked to defuse the tensions that surfaced between them in 2011 and 2012, resulting in a more unified leadership team in the 113th Congress.
At the same time, Cantor’s association with Boehner could open the door to a challenge from a conservative outside the leadership running on an anti-establishment message. Outside groups like the Club for Growth and Heritage Action have frequently opposed Boehner and Cantor proposals, but they are seen as having less influence in an internal leadership race with a secret ballot.
2) Paul Ryan (Wis.)
As the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2012, Ryan has surged past Cantor, his fellow “Young Gun,” in terms of national celebrity. And as the author of the party’s annual budget proposals, the wonkish Ryan is equally popular within the Republican conference. But while Cantor has long set his sights on the Speaker’s chair, Ryan is less likely to make a bid for House leadership. He has said he will give “a hard look” to running for president in 2016, and he is also seen as a near shoo-in to be the next chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee beginning in 2015.
Ryan has cast a pair of notable votes in the past year in which he was on the opposite side of Cantor. In January, he voted with Boehner and against a majority of House Republicans to support the fiscal cliff deal. And last month he broke with the entire senior leadership team by opposing the legislation that re-opened the federal government and suspended the debt ceiling.
3) Jeb Hensarling (Tex.)
Hensarling left his post as the fourth-ranking House Republican to lead the Financial Services Committee, but his name has come up often recently as a potential candidate for Speaker. A former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, Hensarling would likely garner support from the Texas delegation, the largest Republican state bloc in the House, which has not had a member in the top ranks of leadership since the departure of Tom Delay in 2006.
Since leaving the leadership after the 2012 election, Hensarling has re-established his conservative voting record by opposing the fiscal cliff bill and the legislation ending the government shutdown in October.
4) Tom Price (Ga.)
Another former RSC chairman who served in leadership in 2011-2012, Price was briefly the center of speculation about a challenge to Boehner last year after he lost his bid for conference chairman to Rep. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (R-Wash.). He enjoys support from grassroots conservatives and signaled his intention to remain a force in the House GOP by passing on a bid for the open Senate seat in Georgia in 2014. The leadership gave Price a soft landing by naming him the vice chairman of the Budget Committee, and while he could be a factor in a leadership shakeup, he is seen as a more likely replacement for Ryan as budget chairman in 2015.
5) Steve Scalise (La.)
Scalise has won positive reviews as the current RSC chairman after the powerful conservative bloc endured a rocky period in the 112th Congress. Like Price, Scalise chose to stay in the House instead of making a Senate bid in 2014, and he is widely seen as a future leadership candidate. But a jump to the top spot next year would be a tall order, and a bid for a lower leadership post is more likely.
Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) – The third of the original “Young Guns” is expected to move up behind Cantor in the ranks rather than challenge him for Speaker.
Cathy McMorris-Rodgers (Wash.) – The top-ranking woman in the House GOP may also look to advance, but could face a challenge from the right to become whip, which is expected to be a competitive post.
Rep. James Lankford (Okla.) – The ambitious Oklahoman won a leadership spot in his second term as chairman of the Republican Policy Committee.
Rep. Peter Roskam (Ill.) – Currently the chief deputy whip, Roskam has beefed up his political shop and could be gunning to replace McCarthy if he moves up to majority leader.
Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.) – Cole has raised his profile as an oft-quoted voice of pragmatism and leadership ally, and he has earned plum assignments on the budget conference committee and a sub-committee chairmanship on Appropriations. But his support among conservatives is a question.