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Speaker turmoil offers incoming members rare spotlight

Incoming Republicans James, Ciscomani get time for early speeches

Michigan Republican John James nominates Republican leader Kevin McCarthy before a seventh attempt to elect a speaker Thursday. Speeches by James and others have fueled speculation about future leadership ambitions and runs for Senate.
Michigan Republican John James nominates Republican leader Kevin McCarthy before a seventh attempt to elect a speaker Thursday. Speeches by James and others have fueled speculation about future leadership ambitions and runs for Senate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

In his first days in the Capitol, Republican John James, a recently elected member from Michigan, made the unusual move of giving a high-profile speech on the House floor to nominate Kevin McCarthy as speaker. 

“My family’s gone from slave to the floor of the United States House of Representatives, being the first member of his freshman class to speak, in a series of five generations,” James, a 41-year-old Army veteran who is Black, boomed on the floor Thursday ahead of the seventh ballot over who would preside over the 118th Congress. 

The tumultuous, protracted speaker debate has offered a rare opportunity for brand-new and lesser-known lawmakers, such as James and Juan Ciscomani of Arizona, to highlight their biographies and display oratory gravitas. And they’re doing it in a room packed with colleagues — after an end to proxy voting — and before a national audience. The speeches have fueled speculation about future leadership ambitions and runs for Senate and have given the GOP a chance to spotlight the emerging diversity in its ranks. 

“For them to be able to give nominating speeches on the floor that millions of people are tuned into, including the national media, gives them a real opportunity to showcase their potential star power within the Republican Party,” said Ron Bonjean, a former House GOP leadership aide and a co-founder of the consulting firm Rokk Solutions. “Having that national attention can really help with everything, with getting noticed, to fundraising, for future political endeavors.”

Most members typically wait much longer to utter anything on the floor, and when they do, it’s under House rules that tightly control time for debate, so speaking time is often awarded in 30-second increments. William R. Timmons IV, a South Carolina Republican who is starting his third term in the House, said he waited a full year before he spoke in a committee or on the House floor. 

“Everybody’s got their own way of doing things,” Timmons said Friday near the House chamber, as lawmakers continued to vote for a speaker. “So far, the speeches I’ve heard from freshmen have been very good.” 

One of those incoming freshmen, Republican Ciscomani, who won a close race for Arizona’s 6th District, also got a moment on the House floor Thursday to nominate McCarthy. Both James and Ciscomani are considered potential future Senate candidates. James ran twice, unsuccessfully, in 2018 and 2020, and is on a short list of Republicans who may seek the seat of retiring Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow.  

There can, of course, be a downside in GOP primaries to having sided with the party’s establishment, but that did not deter new members who took the opportunity to raise their profiles. 

‘Proud’ to stand

“I am proud to stand here before you today as the first naturalized citizen in the history of Arizona to win a congressional seat, proud of the work of my parents, my dad, who drove a bus for most of his life, my mom, a homemaker,” Ciscomani, who was born in Mexico, said on the House floor. 

He recalled a conversation he had with his dad, in Spanish, when he was planning to run for Congress: “He said, ‘I drive a bus my whole life, and now my son has a shot at becoming a member of the United States Congress. Where else in the world can we have our story?’ I washed cars with my dad in the same neighborhood that our office sits today.”

California Democrat Maxine Waters said House Republicans, in particular, were making floor speaking picks purposefully.  

“Political decisions are being made about how it will help enhance someone’s stature at home that may be in a difficult race,” she said Friday off the House floor. As for Republican efforts to showcase the party’s growing diversity, she added, “They can’t showcase too much — they don’t have that many.” 

House Democrats — who have far more racial diversity and have picked the first Black party leader in Hakeem Jeffries of New York — also gave opportunities to some of the party’s rising stars, including Joe Neguse of Colorado, who nominated Jeffries for speaker during one of the ballots Thursday.  

“The last several days have been difficult for the country and for the American people as they have watched what has unfolded in this chamber, as they have seen the dysfunction laid bare on the other side of the aisle,” Neguse said. He called Jeffries a leader “for our times.”

Republicans who opposed McCarthy for speaker, such as hard-line conservative Lauren Boebert of Colorado, have also logged unusual amounts of floor time speeches, nominating alternatives to the party’s leader. 

Some more seasoned Republicans who have been in Congress and support McCarthy have attracted new attention this week, including from the national media. Those include Florida’s Kat Cammack, who was first elected in 2020, and Warren Davidson, an Army veteran and conservative from Ohio who filled the seat once held by Speaker John A. Boehner. Davidson considered a run for Senate previously and may be among contenders seeking to challenge Democrat Sherrod Brown, who is up for reelection in 2024.

“I’m proud of this party when I look at these nominating speeches,” said Sam Geduldig, a former House GOP leadership aide who is now a partner with the CGCN Group. He added that the speaker debate has been difficult to watch but said the speeches by newer and up-and-coming members have been inspiring. “I’m excited about the future with them.” 

It’s a different party than it was, and the Republican conference is younger, more diverse and thoughtful and ideologically more diverse. There are more women, more minorities and more veterans,” he added. 

Main Street dismay  

Sarah Chamberlain, the Republican Main Street Partnership’s CEO, called the intraparty speaker conflict a “disaster” but noted that some of the group’s newest members, including Ciscomani and Mike Lawler of New York, were introducing themselves to the country and their fellow members, either on the House floor or in TV interviews. 

“A lot of them are just frustrated,” said Chamberlain, adding that those members are proud to support McCarthy. “Kevin McCarthy worked very hard to build this freshman class.” 

Many Main Street members, who hail from battleground districts, “don’t have the luxury of a Matt Gaetz district,” she said, referring to the Florida Republican from a safe seat who voted against McCarthy 13 times through Friday afternoon.

“These are districts that we need to hold,” she said. The Main Street group announced a national digital ad campaign Friday with such messages as: “Grandstanding is not the solution. Getting to work is.” 

“We are focusing on letting the American people know that conservative Main Street members exist,” she said. “This is not acceptable, what is happening on the floor of the House.”

Michigan member James, in his appeal on behalf of McCarthy, reflected on the first time he met the GOP leader, saying it was in his congressional office “under the watchful gaze” of a painting of the formerly enslaved abolitionist Frederick Douglass. 

“And he told me in that office on the eve of the 2019 State of the Union address that there’s nothing that could be said or done during that address that embarrassed him more than the fact that when the Democrat side stood up, they would look more like the United States of America than we did,” James said. 

McCarthy was on a mission, James said: “He set out not to compromise our values, not to compromise our ideology, but to work harder to make sure that more people with diverse perspectives and different lived experiences could be here.” James added that the gains the House GOP made in 2020 were with candidates who were minorities, women and veterans. 

“We have a long way to go, but we’ve come so far,”  James added. “You don’t fire a guy who’s winning.”

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