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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

The most raw, captivating and consequential drama in American politics will unfold on Capitol Hill this summer: the race among both Democrats and Republicans to be party boss — and king or queen of Congress. 

The big picture: Nothing exposes the ambition, game-playing, back-scratching and winner-take-lots of politics than congressional leadership races. There's scheming, lying and the naked display of human nature. You're running against your ostensible friends — and finding out who your real ones are.

  • And thanks to Paul Ryan’s retirement and Nancy Pelosi’s polarization, the leadership of both parties is now in play. Just as control of the entire House is in play.

The latest palace intrigue among House Rs: The current #2 is Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), the favorite to succeed Ryan — despite being denied the office once before — especially because he's so close to President Trump.

  • If McCarthy can't get enough votes — possible, given opposition among the conservative Freedom Caucus — then the most likely pick would be the current #3, House Republican Whip Steve Scalise (La.).
  • Scalise won’t (directly) challenge McCarthy for the top job, but will step into the void if McCarthy falls short — or thinks he will fall short because Scalise allies tell him so. Scalise is viewed as more conservative and ideological.
  • McCarthy is a political animal and massive fundraiser.
  • President Trump, who has mused about making McCarthy his chief of staff, could pick the winner. McCarthy’s weakness is hard-right Rs, so Trump’s endorsement could prove decisive if it ever came. 
  • Another possible behind-the-scenes drama: Ryan said he plans to remain in office through the election, but will members let or want him?
  • A former top Republican aide on the Hill tells us: "Donors won't give him another penny. Members won't take a tough vote because he asks. The idea that he would lead us into the most difficult midterm election while looking for another job is alarming."

And among the Ds ... House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi should be a sho0-in to keep leading Democrats if she were not so radioactive in swing districts.

  • Rep. Joe Crowley of Queens is viewed by Dems as a plausible alternative because a growing number of Democrats in swing districts are pledging to oppose her to prove they are not super liberal. If enough swear off Pelosi, she might be forced to step aside even if Democrats win the House. 

Be smart: With a record number of women voting, after a record number of women ran, after a presidential election that saw the first woman win the popular vote but lose the White House, it will be very hard for Democrats to deny Pelosi the speakership.

  • Be even smarter: Being speaker is a much better thing to say you do, than to actually do. The power of leaders has been drained by the rise of social media, outside money and polarization. That’s why the last two — Ryan and John Boehner — quit with relief.
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Go deeper

CPAC Republicans choose conservatism over constituents

Rep. Matt Gaetz. Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images

CPAC proved such a draw, conservative Republicans chose the conference over their constituents.

Why it matters: More than a dozen House Republicans voted by proxy on the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill in Washington so they could speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC. And Sen. Ted Cruz skipped an Air Force One flight as President Biden flew to Cruz's hometown of Houston to survey storm damage.

Border Democrat warns Biden about immigrant fallout

Henry Cuellar (right). Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images

A Democratic lawmaker representing a border district warned the Biden administration against easing up too much on unauthorized immigrants, citing their impact on his constituents, local hospitals and their potential to spread the coronavirus.

Why it matters: Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) told Axios he supports President Biden. But the moderate said he sees the downsides of efforts to placate pro-immigrant groups, an effort that threatens to blow up on the administration.

In CPAC speech, Trump says he won't start a 3rd party

Trump at CPAC on Feb. 28 in Orlando, Florida. Photo: Courtesy of C-SPAN.

In his first public speech since leaving office, former President Trump told the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that he would not start a third party because "we have the Republican party."

Why it matters: The former president aims to cement himself as Republicans' "presumptive 2024 nominee" as his top contenders — including former members of his administration — face the challenge of running against the GOP's most popular politician.

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