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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

Right-wingers making McCarthy sweat for future Speaker post

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy stands with his Republican colleagues outside the House on Nov. 17. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Right-wing elements in the Republican Party are complicating House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's attempts to become the next speaker of the House should the GOP take back the majority in 2022.

Why it matters: While McCarthy has worked carefully to build trust among the conservatives who tanked his chances at clinching the speakership in 2015, they're still circling ahead of the next Speaker vote in January 2023.

3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Congress sprints to meet crush of deadlines

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Congressional leaders have been pushing off vital action for months — and a lot of it will catch up with them in December, which begins Wednesday.

Driving the news: Funding for the federal government is set to expire at midnight on Friday. There are also consequential deadlines related to the debt limit, President Biden's agenda and annual actions like voting on the National Defense Authorization Act.

3 hours ago - World

U.S. fears Iran won’t scale back to 2015 nuclear deal

Officials gather in Vienna on Sept. 29 for the first day of renewed nuclear talks with Iran. Photo: EU Vienna Delegation/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

U.S. officials have extremely low expectations as world powers resume negotiations with Iran to curb its nuclear program, believing the Iranians aren't yet ready to negotiate seriously, Axios is told.

Driving the news: Senior officials in the U.S. intelligence community have assessed the new Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, thinks of his predecessor, Hassan Rouhani, as a weak accommodationist who negotiated a bad deal with the U.S. and other world powers in 2015.

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