WASHINGTON (AP) — Stalemated over a new House speaker, the Republican majority is meeting behind closed doors Wednesday to try to choose a new leader, but lawmakers warn it could take hours, if not days, to unite behind a nominee after Kevin McCarthy’s ouster.
The two leading contenders, Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio, appear to be splitting the vote among their Republican colleagues. McCarthy, who had openly positioned himself to reclaim the job he just lost, told fellow GOP lawmakers not to nominate him this time.
“I don’t know how the hell you get to 218,” said Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, referring to the majority vote typically needed in the 435-member House to become speaker. “It could be a long week.”
It’s an extraordinary moment of political chaos that has brought the House to a standstill at a time of uncertainty at home and crisis abroad, just 10 months after Republicans swept to power. Aspiring to operate as a team and run government more like a business, the GOP majority has drifted far from that goal with the unprecedented ouster of a speaker.
Americans are watching. One-quarter of Republicans say they approve of the decision by a small group of Republicans to remove McCarthy as speaker. Three in 10 Republicans believe it was a mistake, according to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
The hard-right coalition of lawmakers that ousted McCarthy, R-Calif., has shown what an oversize role a few lawmakers can have in choosing his successor.
“I am not thrilled with either choice right now,” said Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., who voted to oust McCarthy.
Both Scalise and Jordan are working furiously to shore up support. Both are easily winning over dozens of supporters and could win a majority of the 221 Republicans.
But it’s unclear whether either Scalise or Jordan can amass the votes that would be needed from almost all Republicans to overcome opposition from Democrats during a floor vote in the narrowly split House. Usually, the majority needed would be 218 votes, but there are currently two vacant seats, dropping the threshold to 217.
Many Republicans want to prevent the spectacle of a messy House floor fight like the grueling January brawl when McCarthy became speaker.
“People are not comfortable going to the floor with a simple majority and then having C-SPAN and the rest of the world watch as we have this fight,” said Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla. “We want to have this family fight behind closed doors.”
Some have proposed a rules change that Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., the interim speaker pro tempore, is considering to ensure a majority vote before the nominee is presented for a full floor vote.
McCarthy himself appeared to agree with a consensus approach. “They shouldn’t come out of there until they decide that they have enough votes for whoever they bring to the floor,” McCarthy said.
But short of a rules change, Republican lawmakers would be expected to agree to a majority-wins process — whichever candidate wins the internal private vote would be given the full backing of the Republicans on the floor.
It’s no guarantee. Scalise and Jordan indicated they would support the eventual nominee, lawmakers said. But many lawmakers remained undecided.
While both are conservatives from the right flank, neither Scalise nor Jordan is the heir apparent to McCarthy, who was removed in a push by the far-right flank after the speaker led Congress to approve legislation that averted a government shutdown.
Scalise, as the second-ranking Republican, would be next in line for speaker and is seen as a hero among colleagues for having survived severe injuries from a mass shooting during a congressional baseball practice in 2017. He is now battling blood cancer.
“We’re going to go get this done,” Scalise said as he left a candidate forum Tuesday night. “The House is going to get back to work.”
Jordan is a high-profile political firebrand known for his close alliance with Donald Trump, particularly when the then-president was working to overturn the results of the 2020 election, leading to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Trump has backed Jordan’s bid for the gavel.
Scalise and Jordan presented similar views at the forum about cutting spending and securing the southern border with Mexico, top Republican priorities.
Several lawmakers, including Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who engineered McCarthy’s ouster, said they would be willing to support either Scalise or Jordan.
Others though, particularly more centrist conservative Republicans from districts that are narrowly split between the parties, are holding out for another choice.
“Personally, I’m still with McCarthy,” said Rep. David Valadao, a Republican who represents a California district not far from McCarthy’s.
“We’ll see how that plays out, but I do know a large percentage of the membership wants to be there with him as well.”
“I think it’s important whoever takes that job is willing to risk the job for doing what’s right for the American public,” McCarthy said.
For now, McHenry is effectively in charge. He has shown little interest in expanding his power beyond the role he was assigned — an interim leader tasked with ensuring the election of the next speaker.
The role was created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to ensure the continuity of government. McHenry’s name was at the top of a list submitted by McCarthy when he became speaker in January.
While some Republicans, and Democrats are open to empowering McHenry the longer he holds the temporary position, that seems unlikely as the speaker’s fight drags on.