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Paul Ryan retirement rumors jolt politics in the Capitol

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) is reportedly eyeing the exits. That may seem surprising, but it makes a lot of sense.
Image: Paul Ryan
House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wis. arrives for Republican caucus on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, March 24, 2017. Republican leaders have abruptly pulled...

At a press conference on Capitol Hill yesterday, a reporter asked House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) if he's "quitting anytime soon." The Republican leader shook his head, chuckled, and replied, "No, I'm not."

The answer wasn't surprising, but it's worth taking a moment to understand why the question came up in the first place.

On Wednesday night, the HuffPost's Matt Fuller, who's very well sourced in Congress, quoted an unnamed Republican lawmaker saying, "There's a whole lot of rumors and speculation that the speaker may step aside." A number of other GOP lawmakers conceded they'd heard similar chatter.

Yesterday, Politico's Tim Alberta and Rachael Bade, who are also well sourced, moved the ball forward.

Despite several landmark legislative wins this year, and a better-than-expected relationship with President Donald Trump, Ryan has made it known to some of his closest confidants that this will be his final term as speaker. [...]In recent interviews with three dozen people who know the speaker -- fellow lawmakers, congressional and administration aides, conservative intellectuals and Republican lobbyists -- not a single person believed Ryan will stay in Congress past 2018.

AshLee Strong, a prominent spokesperson for Ryan, said in response to the report, "This is pure speculation. As the speaker himself said today, he's not going anywhere any time soon."

Of course, "soon" is a relative term. If the speaker were to retire after next year's midterms, he'd still have over a year in office remaining.

And while I'm generally reluctant to pay too much attention to Capitol Hill scuttlebutt -- either the speaker will retire or he won't, and we'll all find out soon enough -- I also think it's worth appreciating why this week's reporting on Ryan's future is so easy to believe.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but the list of incentives for Ryan to retire isn't short. The Wisconsin congressman no doubt recognizes, for example, the very real possibility that House Democrats will reclaim the majority after the 2018 cycle, and I doubt he'd relish the opportunity to serve as House Minority Leader.

Even if Dems fall short, leading House Republicans with a small majority would be even more exasperating than leading House Republicans with a sizable majority.

What's more, the Politico  piece quoted Ryan's friends saying he doesn't love the job -- the speaker has reportedly said he "feels like he's running a daycare center" -- and would like to be able spend time with his kids as they enter their teenage years.

Not having to deal with House Freedom Caucus coup rumors, Senate filibusters, and Donald Trump's re-election 2020 campaign also has obvious advantages.

Sure, Ryan and his team are pushing back against the chatter, which makes sense. The moment the political world thinks the speaker is headed for the exits, his power diminishes and attention turns to the race to find his replacement. The "lame-duck" dynamic would make Ryan far less influential than he is now.

But that doesn't negate the chatter, which the speaker could shut down with a categorical denial -- Ryan could, for example, say in no uncertain terms that he's definitely running again next year, no matter what -- that we haven't yet heard.

The speaker's spokesperson isn't wrong: this entire line of discussion is speculative. But this is credible scuttlebutt rooted in reporting that shouldn't be overlooked.