Politics & Policy

Peter Roskam: The Next-Next Speaker?

Roskam on Capitol Hill. (Alex Wong/Getty)

Peter Roskam is a picture of patience.

In response to the news of House speaker John Boehner’s resignation, the Illinois Republican congressman called for a special meeting on the state of the conference, hosted a briefing with reporters following that meeting, and — “he said nothing,” as another House Republican put it.

Roskam said he was not running for a leadership position. “I’m not putting together a race and I’m not doing any of those things that you would expect,” he told reporters in his office.

That announcement perplexes some of his colleagues. The Illinois Republican has demonstrable leadership ambitions (he ran unsuccessfully for majority whip in 2014 after taking over as chief deputy whip following the 2010 midterms) and a history of collaborating with the rank-and-file lawmakers who gave Boehner such grief. His forbearance has Republicans wondering whether he has the look of a potential candidate or whether he’s drawn a different conclusion: that a leadership job isn’t worth wanting – not right now.

GOP colleagues think Roskam has the potential to contend for such an office. “Peter has a lot of respect from a lot of colleagues,” Representative Pat Meehan, a moderate from Pennsylvania, tells National Review. “He was the deputy whip and he spent a lot of time working with individual members all throughout the conference for a number of years, so there’s a lot of deep personal relationships and there’s a lot of respect for him.”

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That respect extends to the backbenchers who participated in a dramatic, if badly organized, coup attempt against Boehner in January. “Very definitely, I think that Peter’s got the ability to move forward and to be in a leadership position,” says Representative Walter Jones (R., N.C.).

Roskam maintains that he wants only to “be helpful” to his colleagues. “I have determined that the best way for me to try and be helpful is to do the things that I’m doing now and to try and point out and try and coalesce House Republicans around a plan,” he says. “The ability for us to stop and be more reflective was a good thing. The ability for us to now focus on a speaker’s race and put aside other subsequent races is a good thing. Our ability to contemplate rules changes in an unhurried way is a good thing. And all of these things, I think, together, can make us a more cohesive, substantive majority.”

#share#Not coincidentally, each of those “good things” were organized with his assistance: He invoked House GOP rules to trigger the “reflective” special conference meeting, then joined with House Freedom Caucus leaders in asking Boehner to delay any down-ballot leadership races until after the speaker is chosen, and now is collaborating with Republican colleagues who are proposing various rules changes.

Even before Boehner’s departure, Roskam was raising eyebrows, most dramatically during a GOP conference meeting on how best to vote against the Iran deal. Roskam asked for extended time to speak in opposition to participating in the Iran-deal review process set up by a Senate-drafted law that was structured to allow the deal to take effect even if congressional majorities voted against it. Roskam punctuated his remarks with a broad swipe at Republican leaders. “This is what always happens, we decide we’re going to lose and then we negotiate backwards from there,” he said, per a colleague who attended the meeting.

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Such rhetoric endeared Roskam to some of the House conservatives who regarded him as too moderate during the last round of leadership elections. “I think Pete is in a good spot if he wants to [run], so, that might be an interesting dynamic to watch — one that I’m watching pretty closely,” says one member of the House Freedom Caucus.

A senior aide to another House Republican who has worked with Roskam thinks he might replicate the ascent of former House speaker Dennis Hastert, known as “the accidental speaker” because of how he took advantage of an unexpected vacancy in 1998. “Hastert’s path to leadership must be on his mind,” the aide says.

Various Republicans allow that Roskam could make such a snap bid if the House Freedom Caucus refuses to grant House majority leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.), the likely choice to succeed Boehner of a majority of House Republicans, the final votes needed to win the speaker’s gavel on the House floor. “Whether he introduces himself into this dynamic in some way depends on how it unfolds,” says Meehan, who expects McCarthy to win the required 218 votes.

#related#Roskam, though, both has declined to run and has pledged to support McCarthy in the event of his likely victory among Republican members. “We choose our nominee in conference and it’s my hope that the conference rallies around our nominee,” he says. “That’s clearly the strongest way forward.”

It’s possible that the plausibility of such a scenario — a floor revolt against the speaker-designate, buttressed by grassroots opposition to leadership — is actually deterring Roskam from running. “Maybe this is a job that is destined to failure because of the tone of the conference right now,” says one House conservative who has been frustrated with Boehner. “The culture has changed. I think the 24-hour news cycle [and] social media make it much more difficult to make law, or, at least, to try and negotiate agreements between various factions of our party, and talk radio doesn’t help give anybody breathing room in trying to get stuff done.”

Roskam, walking off the House floor, laughs when presented with that theory. “We would be easier to lead if we were a healthier group, that’s for sure,” he replies, before turning down the hallway to the speaker’s office.

— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review.

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