A divided House Republican Conference returned to the Capitol on Monday night amid urgency to fill its leadership vacuum and quickly secure aid to Israel after the deadliest terrorist attack on the U.S. ally in decades.
Lawmakers coming and going from their closed-door meeting appeared mostly unified on the need to elect a new speaker as soon as Wednesday. But with no clear front-runner between the two chief candidates — Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La., and Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio — it wasn’t obvious the conference would be able to unite behind one of them this week.
“The world is watching. They’re seeing a dysfunctional democracy … We need to get a speaker by Wednesday,” Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, said. “I think, by and large, people will accept the will of the conference. But getting to 217 [votes] — that’s going to be the issue.”
The GOP conference is scheduled to hold a “candidate forum” on Tuesday night to hear from Scalise and Jordan, followed by the internal conference election on Wednesday morning. But more than half the conference so far hasn’t committed to one or the other candidate, including McCaul, and as of Monday night it appeared like it could go either way.
Rep. David Joyce, R-Ohio, said he didn’t feel like “they were any closer or farther away from a resolution of this matter” in the conference meeting. Joyce is a rarity among his delegation in that he hasn’t yet endorsed Jordan.
The fear of paralysis within the conference was leading some to advocate for a delay to allow unity to build behind one candidate. That sentiment was expressed even by a Jordan backer like Rep. Max Miller, R-Ohio.
Some, like Joyce, wanted to ensure that the speaker pro tempore, Financial Services Chairman Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., had authorities beyond simply setting up a new speaker election in order to get legislation moving on the floor again in the interim.
Meanwhile, the former speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., appeared to be setting himself up as the dark horse candidate if either of the two front-runners faltered. McCarthy did a round of media hits on Monday where he made clear his strong commitment to Israel — and the fact that he retains 96 percent support among House Republicans.
But the remainder consists of eight GOP lawmakers who can continue to deny McCarthy the gavel as long as they’d like. And they don’t show any signs of relenting. One of the eight McCarthy “no” votes last week, Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn., wouldn’t say who he’s supporting other than it won’t be McCarthy.
Nonetheless, Burchett said he’s “very confident” there will be a new speaker by the end of the week and as early as Wednesday.
‘No plan to begin with’
Other uncommitted lawmakers from more centrist districts remain angry with Burchett, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and the others who backed McCarthy’s ouster. Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., a freshman whose seat Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales considers a Toss-up in 2024, said Monday he hoped the conference could move quickly but that it was incumbent on Gaetz and his allies to present a solution.
“There should be a sense of urgency, but again, you had eight people that created this mess along with 208 Democrats. They chose to remove the speaker of the House and create a constitutional crisis. Ninety-six percent of us believe that Kevin McCarthy should still be speaker,” Lawler said. “Those folks who voted to remove the speaker have created this crisis. So it’s not incumbent on folks like me to bail them out with a plan when they had no plan to begin with.”
Lawler reiterated that he’d like to expel Gaetz from the GOP conference and kick the eight who voted to depose McCarthy off their committees.
To drive the point home, Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, another Biden-district Republican, told reporters that McCarthy remains the only candidate who has 96 percent support within the conference.
Still, lawmakers who’ve committed one way or another on Monday were making their candidates’ respective cases.
Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, an early Scalise backer, said in an interview that the Louisianan is the “happy warrior that brings us all together” and could unite the party around common goals of aiding Israel, securing the border and keeping the government open beyond Nov. 17 when stopgap funds run out.
Gonzales also pointed to Scalise’s track record of prodigious fundraising and visits to key swing districts like his — though it’s become redder since redistricting — as key to securing the majority.
“I’m in a difficult seat,” Gonzales said. “Many of the people that made us in the majority are in difficult seats and so I believe Steve Scalise is that person that can help us grow the majority.”
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., is a Jordan backer who sees the Ohioan as the right candidate to lead the conference amid global challenges, starting with Israel under attack.
Issa — who’s in line to inherit the Judiciary chairmanship if Jordan moves up into leadership — said he hopes the party unites behind closed doors rather than have a messy floor battle as it did in January when it took McCarthy 15 rounds of balloting to secure the gavel.
“How many rounds was it in ‘Rocky’? You’re talking about some tough characters — Jim Jordan was an all-state champion wrestler. He can go the equivalent of 15 rounds,” Issa said. “I think we’re going to do this within the Republican family behind closed doors, because quite frankly, I don’t want to repeat what we did on the floor with multiple candidates.”
Aid package questions
The first order of business once a speaker is elected, McCaul said, would be a resolution condemning Hamas, the terrorist organization that launched the attack on Israel.
McCaul, who’s been briefed by President Joe Biden’s national security team on the situation, said there’s been discussion of a broad aid package, not just for Israel, but also for Ukraine, Taiwan and border security. “To me, that would be a good package,” McCaul said.
But he reiterated that “we can’t do anything in the House right now until we have a speaker. … We have to get this thing done on Wednesday.”
But it wasn’t clear such an aid package would face smooth sailing through the House even if there were a speaker in place. A broad swath of the GOP conference opposes Ukraine aid, which Jordan has voted against while Scalise has supported.
Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., a Jordan backer, said aid to Israel should move first.
“Why would the White House even go down this road of tying Ukraine and Israel? … We should be supportive of Israel, take care of that. Obviously, Ukraine is an issue in our conference,” Donalds said. “Let’s make sure we take care of Israel and get them what they need. We’ll take care of everything else later.”
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., who chairs the State-Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, said the administration needs to start doing legwork now among Republicans to get the support for an aid package.
Diaz-Balart, who is backing Scalise, said a “strict national security package” was possible, but that “the key there is to, I think, consult, because this is a process where we have to get the votes to do this.”
Diaz-Balart said he favors aid to Ukraine, but because it has existing funds available, there is a greater need to get resources to Israel quickly. “There’s a sense of urgency, but it’s important to make sure that the administration doesn’t try to just load everything up, including, you know, their own agenda,” Diaz-Balart said.
For their part, Scalise and Jordan didn’t have much to say publicly upon leaving the conference meeting Monday, pointing to the “great” and “healthy” discussion inside the room. Each expressed a desire to get the election over with this week and get back to work, starting with aid to Israel.
“We see a strong resolve, a lot of real passion from all of our members, to come together and let’s get back on track. That’s what we’re going to do,” Scalise said.
Paul M. Krawzak and Jessica Wehrman contributed to this report.