It’s not that Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz thinks he’s going to be elected speaker on Thursday — though he said he’s not giving up on that idea — it’s just that the Utah Republican doesn’t think Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy can be elected on the floor.
“Clearly Kevin McCarthy has the majority of the conference. I have no doubt about that,” Chaffetz told reporters Monday morning. “The math problem is on the floor.”
Chaffetz said everyone he’s talked to recognizes that McCarthy does not have 218 Republican votes on the floor, that McCarthy’s support is “dwindling, not growing,” and that even if McCarthy wins in conference, he’s going to be blocked. And even though Chaffetz notes he’s friendly with McCarthy, he doesn’t seem to think advancing the California Republican to the top spot is a smart idea.
“I think, increasingly, members are recognizing that their constituents don’t want to perpetuate the status quo,” Chaffetz said, “that simply giving existing leadership a promotion is not going to work well at all.”
When McCarthy kicked off his 2016 re-election campaign in May, Chaffetz was the key-note speaker. When Chaffetz decided he would run against McCarthy, Chaffetz was with McCarthy and told him face to face. (“He wasn’t too happy,” Chaffetz said.)
And yet as close as the two Republicans may be, this race is already exposing some tension.
Asked about his comments regarding McCarthy and the GOP needing a “speaker who could speak,” Chaffetz said: “You really think I need to explain that one?”
Obviously, McCarthy’s recent comments on Benghazi helped to fuel Chaffetz’s decision to run for speaker, but Chaffetz doesn’t seem to think McCarthy is really up to the job anyway. Chaffetz notes he was approached by a number of Republicans urging him to run, and he thinks that he can bridge a divide between establishment Republicans and conservatives by taking a harder line with Democrats and the president.
Chaffetz said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was “absolutely, flat-out wrong” to concede that Congress would not shut down the government. Chaffetz seemed to think a shutdown was a valuable negotiating tool. And he was adamant that he does not support a clean debt ceiling raise, instead vowing that committees such as Ways and Means should come up with legislation to address the debt limit.
Chaffetz talked at length about changing the process in Congress, allowing committees to work their will and avoiding last-minute decisions from leaders.
That message will certainly appeal to conservatives, but why would a moderate vote for Chaffetz?
“Because I’ve demonstrated over the last six-and-a-half years that what I do and how I do it has not been the vitriolic approach that some of the others have taken,” Chaffetz said. “That I can say it and do it in such a way that it’s palatable to our more centrist members.”
“Right now,” Chaffetz said, “there is a gulf and a divide that is causing animosity.”
But bridging that divide between conservatives and establishment Republicans may not be so easy. And Chaffetz may not be the far-right’s savior either, considering that the Oversight chairman was at the center of an effort to punish conservatives this summer.
Back in June, Chaffetz took a subcommittee gavel from Mark Meadows, a House Freedom Caucus chairman who had voted against a rule for trade legislation and had not donated to the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2015. But HFC members revolted, threatening to never allow Chaffetz to reappoint a new chairman, and Chaffetz was forced to reverse his decision.
On Monday, Chaffetz said he had learned a valuable lesson from the experience. “You’re not going to break knuckles to build unity,” he said. (When the prospect of Chaffetz facing punishment was brought up, Chaffetz said, “You can fire me all you want; I just got a colonoscopy from the Secret Service,” referring to an effort from the Secret Service to embarrass Chaffetz because of his aggressive oversight.)
The speaker election is slated for this Thursday, and even though Chaffetz doesn’t seem to expect to win on that day, he doesn’t seem to think the election is quite over until a speaker is confirmed on the floor.
“The question in my mind is when will our conference come to the realization that we have to have a new, fresh person as our speaker,” Chaffetz said. “I don’t know if that happens before Thursday, before we go to the floor, even after we go to the floor, I don’t know.”
And what if Democrats ended up giving McCarthy the speakership, either by voting present or voting for him?
“That’s the wrong way to go,” Chaffetz said. “That isn’t going to play well.”