AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
House Speaker Paul Ryan gave Washington a jolt this morning. He announced he would leave Congress at the end of the year.
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PAUL RYAN: I have accomplished much of what I came here to do. And my kids aren't getting any younger. And if I stay, they're only going to know me as a weekend dad. And that's just something I consciously can't do.
CORNISH: The news started a scramble among House Republicans over who might succeed Ryan. It also raises questions about their party's identity and what it can accomplish before the midterm elections in November. We've got NPR congressional reporter Kelsey Snell here to break it all down. Hey there, Kelsey.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Hi.
CORNISH: So you were in the Capitol today as Paul Ryan made this announcement. Can you tell us more about why he's leaving now? Do people really believe it's all about his family?
SNELL: Obviously the timing was a huge shock, but the idea of him leaving wasn't such a huge shock. There've been rumors for months about his future. And there weren't really any fresh signs of - leading up to today that he would be headed for the door. Part of that is because it's kind of remarkable that Ryan, who's only 48 years old and has only been Speaker for less than three years, would even be leaving. As far as we know, everything that his staff and he has said leads us to think that, yes, he does really want to go spend more time with them.
But it really does raise a lot of questions about how confident Republicans really are about keeping their House majority after the election. His decision to leave is part of a wave of retirements. And often, retirements in a year leading up to an election like this indicate that there are a lot of members who just don't feel confident that their party can win. And they don't want to go through the really difficult re-election process and getting beat up on the campaign trail only to lose.
CORNISH: So how are Republicans on the Hill responding?
SNELL: They really didn't know that this was coming. And like I said, most of them said they weren't surprised. And there has been a mix of public support for Ryan's decision and private fears about what might happen in the election in November. A lot of them say they respect his decision to be more than a weekend parent who has young kids. But they say they're worried that it sends a bad message to donors in particular that the Republican party just isn't ready to win.
There are other people, like retiring Republican Charlie Dent, who says that none of that really matters and that if Republicans have a bad year this year, it's all because of President Trump. Here's what he said.
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CHARLIE DENT: I believe each member's going to be running in their district, you know, in a pretty damn toxic political environment. We all know that. It's going to be a referendum on the president of the United States and his conduct in office. It's not about Paul Ryan. So I don't think Paul's decision is going to have an impact on anyone in this election.
CORNISH: At the same time, Kelsey, this is an important leadership position, right?
CORNISH: I mean, what does this say about the leadership of the Republican Party? And I don't know if there's anyone waiting in the wings to kind of take over that job, come January.
SNELL: Ryan doesn't have a handpicked successor, though I'm told that he has thoughts on how this should all play out. He just not willing to share that information yet, in part because he wants to give people time to kind of make their case to their colleagues about why they should be in charge. At least two members of House Republican leadership are already jockeying for the job - Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who kind of gained public prominence after he was injured during the congressional baseball game shooting last summer, and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who's notable because he's a close confidant of President Trump.
But they're not the only ones who may have an eye on the gavel. Conservative Freedom Caucus chairman Mark Meadows says leadership isn't, quote, "on his bucket list," but he also refused to say he wouldn't run. And (laughter) so that has a lot of people questioning whether or not there's going to be a power grab from conservatives. People say they don't want to have a long, protracted fight because it would cause something like the TMZ effect.
CORNISH: In the meantime, any idea whether Ryan would start working with Democrats in his final weeks?
SNELL: Sure. That's something that his predecessor, former House Speaker John Boehner, did on his way out. They cut a big deal with Democrats on spending. There really isn't that kind of deal to be cut right now. The only thing that's left outstanding is immigration - Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. And that is actually a really big thing that's being held over Ryan's head and something that a lot of people are watching as a potential space for one last big piece of legislation before he goes.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Kelsey Snell. Kelsey, thank you.
SNELL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.