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As GOP Mulls Its Future, All Eyes Fixed on Paul Ryan

Ryan faces one of the most pivotal weeks of his career. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Paul D. Ryan has a decision to make, and until the Wisconsin Republican makes up his mind, many of the other pressing questions that face House Republicans are on hold.  

Ryan and his House GOP colleagues return to the Capitol Tuesday. But with first votes held off until 6:30 p.m., as is customary on the fly-in day, Ryan probably has until Wednesday morning, during the weekly House Republican Conference meeting, to make an announcement on whether he's willing to run for speaker — and even then, Ryan's decision could be in flux. Sources close to Ryan suggest that while the Ways and Means chairman doesn't want the job, he may be open to the speakership  if the entire GOP conference is behind him. That seems like an unlikely scenario, a standard of unanimity that Ryan realizes is just about impossible in these days of faction. But those sources also told CQ Roll Call that, should Ryan decide to take the gavel, he'd probably understand there will be some conservatives who will oppose him.  

The question will be whether the opposition he faces is token or true.  

If Ryan feels he would have to fight for 218 votes on the floor, he may pass on the position, sources say. After all, the reason he's considering the job is to unite the conference.  

If a Ryan speakership faces the same second-guessing and opposition that forced out retiring Speaker John A. Boehner, look for the 45-year-old lawmaker to stick with his Ways and Means gavel.  

A Ryan decision to stay put could backfire on the party's hard-line conservatives, especially since Republicans from Boehner to Ryan's 2012 running mate, Mitt Romney, have insisted Ryan is the natural choice. The outpouring of support from members across the conference seems to have led Ryan to re-evaluate earlier assurances he didn't want the job.  

For now, things are "all quiet on the Longworth front," as one Ways and Means Committee aide put it late last week. Ryan simply hasn't decided what he'll do — or at least hasn't announced what he's going to do.  

Until he does, the speaker's race is in a "holding pattern," according to Lynn Westmoreland, one of roughly a dozen Republicans potentially interested in the position if Ryan doesn't run.  

“Nobody’s answering their phone, really," Westmoreland said at a cybersecurity summit, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution . "The only people I’ve talked to are the other people that are in it."  

The Georgia Republican said nobody wants to commit until Ryan announces, though there would "probably be 10 or 12 names in the hat if Paul doesn’t do it."  

Among those names are the two candidates who were running before Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., shocked the conference and dropped out: Florida Republican Daniel Webster and Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz of Utah.  

While Webster seems apt to remain the conservative alternative to Ryan even if he gets in the race — an obstacle that could complicate Ryan's expected call for unity — Chaffetz has already said he'd withdraw if Ryan entered.  

Other Republicans have taken similar positions. Republican Study Committee Chairman Bill Flores of Texas sent a "Dear Colleague" letter earlier this month announcing his bid for the gavel, simultaneously noting that if Ryan jumps in, Flores would jump out and throw him his support.  

"It is important for me to unequivocally state," Flores wrote, "that I will not run for this position should Chairman Ryan elect to run."  

Politico reported that four other Texas chairmen — Michael McCaul of the Homeland Security Committee, K. Michael Conaway of Agriculture, Pete Sessions of Rules, and Mac Thornberry from the Armed Services panel — were all potentially interested as well, though Thornberry has been emphatic that he's not. ("I'd rather be a vegetarian ," said Thornberry, who still owns cattle on a family ranch.)  

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a conservative favorite from Tennessee, and Mike Pompeo, a third-term Kansas Republican who is well-respected among the right wing and the establishment GOP, are also eyeing bids . So is Darrell Issa of California, who says he's ready to fight . Peter Roskam of Illinois continues to keep members guessing as to what he will ultimately do, while Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana has been quiet about his intentions, except to say that Ryan is the best man for the job.  

If Ryan does pass, Republicans could settle on a "caretaker speaker," such as retiring Rep. John Kline of Minnesota. Or — who knows? — maybe Boehner would end up staying a little longer. The Ohio Republican has already made it clear that his resignation is dependent on having a replacement, something that might not happen before the end of October when Boehner said he would be stepping down.  

All those questions, including ones about a slate of rules changes , are waiting on Ryan.  

In the meantime, Republicans will keep themselves busy with legislation dealing with the debt ceiling — a controversial Tom McClintock, R-Calif., bill that would allow the Treasury to continue paying debt payments in a debt limit default — and a budget reconciliation measure that will defund Planned Parenthood.  

While Boehner's office said last week that a debt ceiling bill was "certainly possible ," the so-called clean-the-barn initiatives Boehner has said he wants to do could also be dependent on the speaker's race.  

Boehner seems likely to do whatever he can to entice Ryan to run and put him in the best position with the conference, and those efforts to clear the decks for the next speaker may well depend on who the next speaker is.  

Matthew Fleming contributed to this report.