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House GOP prepares for potentially long slog to elect speaker

Lawmakers fear neither candidate has consolidated the support necessary to avoid messy floor fight

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise speaks to reporters as he leaves House Republicans’ speaker candidate forum in the Longworth House Office Building on Tuesday.
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise speaks to reporters as he leaves House Republicans’ speaker candidate forum in the Longworth House Office Building on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Republicans began formally debating who should be their next speaker Tuesday night, as the two leading candidates made their pitches to a fractious conference behind closed doors in anticipation of a GOP conference vote Wednesday.

The battle to succeed California Rep. Kevin McCarthy pits House Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana, a stalwart GOP foot soldier, against Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio, a founder of the rebellious Freedom Caucus and onetime McCarthy antagonist turned ally.

But with neither man showing signs of mustering support from a clear majority of the conference, it wasn’t clear how long it would take before a new speaker could be elected.

“Even though I’m the eternal optimist, I don’t see us getting to a speaker tomorrow,” said Florida Rep. Kat Cammack. “There really has not been a clear path for either candidate.”

And that path could be made more difficult under a proposed change to conference rules offered Tuesday by Texas Rep. Chip Roy. Instead of the conference electing its leader through a simple majority vote, Roy’s rule would require a candidate to amass at least 217 votes — just four shy of the total number of GOP members.

If candidates fail to reach 217 votes but they receive at least 185 votes, they would be subjected to additional rounds of questioning from the conference, which would then vote again. And if candidates fail to obtain at least 185 votes, the entire nominating process would restart.

A discussion of the proposed rule change was expected to be held Wednesday. “I think we are going to have a serious conversation about how we ensure that we have 218 behind that individual on the floor, and that’s what we’re going to debate tomorrow,” Roy said.

Supporters of the rule change said the move would ensure GOP unity before bringing a nomination to the House floor, where Republicans govern by a razor-thin margin.

“I think especially in a time of uncertainty, we need to have a united front going to the House floor,” Cammack said. “We need to have these very difficult family discussions behind closed doors, and I don’t care if we do roll calls behind closed doors, but we shouldn’t be playing this out in front of C-SPAN and the rest of the country.”

However, Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., who backs the potential rule change, said there was disagreement in the room as critics feared it would delay the ultimate selection of a new speaker. “Others think if you get it on the floor, it forces quicker action,” Bacon said.

While some conference members have pushed to renominate McCarthy, the former speaker sought to dampen that effort Tuesday. “I asked the members in there not to nominate me,” he said.

California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who was ousted as House speaker last week, walks to the speaker’s office in the Capitol on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Some Scalise backers and others following the race see the effort by McCarthy’s supporters to put him forward as a candidate as a potential effort to boost the former speaker’s preferred candidate: Jordan.

While McCarthy has not yet formally backed either candidate, sources familiar with the situation say he and his allies are likely to aid Jordan because of a feeling that Scalise was not sufficiently loyal to him, and because of longer-term, festering issues between the two from previous leadership contests.

A sustained effort to nominate McCarthy would complicate the race. While that possibility appears remote, as McCarthy sought to take himself out of the running, “I still think there are people who want to vote for him and people who would support him,” said Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif.

Loyalties and tactics

The contest is based less on ideological differences — both men are considered conservatives — than on personal loyalties and governing tactics. While Scalise has spent years in leadership, Jordan began his congressional tenure as a cantankerous bomb-thrower before later aligning himself as a McCarthy ally.

“[W]hat people have really liked about my approaches is that I’ve been a unifier,” Scalise told reporters after the meeting. “I’ve been somebody who’s built coalitions throughout my entire career and we’ve delivered big wins, and people want to see us get back on track.”

But there are some differences over fiscal policy. Jordan has taken a harder edge in seeking spending cuts — a top priority of the Freedom Caucus. While Scalise has backed more aid to Ukraine, Jordan has voted against it.

Several lawmakers said Jordan told the conference Tuesday that if he is elected speaker, his plan would involve passing a “clean” continuing resolution to extend funding through next April once the current stopgap spending law expires Nov. 17.

Jordan said he “felt good” leaving the forum and said his proposed spending plan would be timed to leverage the 1 percent across-the-board cut that would be triggered in April under a provision in the debt limit law to encourage the completion of appropriations bills.

Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan leaves the House Republican Conference speaker candidate forum on Tuesday. Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Dan Meuser appears at right. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

“It creates the kind of environment where we could get all of our appropriations bills debated, and finished, and get some of the policy that we think is important for the American people,” Jordan said.

“I think Rep. Jordan has a unique strategy in incorporating CRs with cuts,” Cammack said, referring to continuing resolutions that extend current funding. “Whereas I think Steve has a very direct push on, we need to push on the appropriations bills, which I think everyone was surprised to hear. So I think they’re going to be a little bit open to modifying because, by and large, the conference wants to see all 12 appropriations [bills] done.”

‘Middle third of America’

Inside the closed-door meeting, each candidate made an opening pitch and took 30 to 40 questions from the conference, said California Rep. Mike Garcia.

“My question to the both of them was how do you resonate with the middle third of America,” said Garcia, who represents a swing district. “It’s districts like mine, the swing seats, that are really going to define whether or not we keep the majority. And within those districts, it’s that middle third of voters who either engage or don’t engage based on how attracted they are to the candidates and not necessarily to the party. So those answers are, I think, very important.”

He said there are “50-50 odds right now” that a speaker would be elected Wednesday.

Some members appeared torn over whom to back after listening to both candidates Tuesday night.

“I was leaning towards Steve and I still am, but I really thought Jim did a great job,” Bacon said. “I’m gonna support the winner. … I think both these guys are genuinely good-hearted. They’re trying to do the best for our country. And we don’t want to play games with our country.”

Another centrist, New York Rep. Marc Molinaro, said both Scalise and Jordan meet his threshold of a willingness to govern and that a speaker must be chosen as quickly as possible to address Israel.

“I think we wanted to hear a commitment to hearing us out and a commitment to governing on the issues and considering our concerns, and I would say in both cases we’ve heard that,” Molinaro said.

Nina Heller, Paul M. Krawzak, Justin Papp and Avery Roe contributed to this report.

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