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House GOP rejects effort to raise threshold for speaker

Republican conference set to vote on nominating speaker after rule change tabled

Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., is seen after a House Republican Conference meeting on the speaker race in Longworth Building on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023.
Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., is seen after a House Republican Conference meeting on the speaker race in Longworth Building on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Republicans voted down a rule change on Wednesday morning that would have raised the threshold for sending a speaker candidate to the full House, paving the way for a floor vote potentially later in the day.

The conference rejected new rules to require 217 Republicans to back a speaker candidate to become its nominee, or enough to elect a speaker on the floor even if all Democrats are present and vote against the GOP nominee, as expected. Instead, the rule will remain that a simple majority of House Republicans is enough to send the nomination to the floor.

The rule change was meant to avoid repeating the public scramble of Kevin McCarthy’s weeklong struggle to lock down enough GOP votes to become speaker in January, particularly after some vulnerable Republicans raised concerns about the visible chaos of McCarthy’s ouster this month.

Multiple sources believed the new rules would benefit Ohio’s Jim Jordan, the Judiciary Chairman and former Freedom Caucus chair who after years of antagonizing leadership became a McCarthy ally with wide backing in the conference. Louisiana’s Steve Scalise, the majority leader with years of leadership experience, was thought to benefit from keeping the rules as-is.

Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., a Scalise supporter, offered the motion to table the rule change, which was approved on a secret ballot during the meeting. The vote was 135-88 in favor of tabling the rule change proposal, according to a source familiar with the debate.

“I personally think that it’s a flawed amendment. We have a process that is time-honored and tested and works. I’m a put-up-or-shut-up kind of guy. We have a chance to go to the floor, demonstrate who we are and what we stand for, and I don’t think there should be any finessing of a system that puts us in a situation where we have to do it all behind closed doors,” Womack told reporters after offering the motion. “Personally I think it empowers a handful of people to be able to stop the movement of a speaker in its tracks.”

Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas, despite being a Jordan backer said raising the vote threshold makes little sense to him.

“What I like to do is imagine if we were running for office, and you got 60 percent of the vote. But somehow there was a rule that 60 percent wasn’t enough. And as a member of Congress, we had to go back and let our opponent who got 40 percent go through round two,” Weber said. “Sixty percent ought to be enough, right? Seems like simple math to me.”

If a candidate had the support to surpass the simple majority threshold this week, the current rules could be a boon. The higher threshold could also complicate the closed-door process if some lawmakers refuse to vote for anyone but their chosen successor to McCarthy.

Some McCarthy supporters could also scramble the process by casting their votes for him to regain the job, though the former speaker has said he asked backers not to put his name forward again.

Texas Rep. Chip Roy, a Jordan backer, proposed the new rules that require a candidate to amass at least 217 of the 221 members of the House Republican conference to become the speaker nominee.

If candidates don’t reach the 217 vote threshold but receive at least 185 votes, they’d appear before the conference for more rounds of questioning before another vote. If no candidate receives at least 185 votes on a ballot, the full nominating procedure would restart.

Critics said that was a recipe for continued gridlock, however.

“Look, this rule would actually give you as low as five people who could keep you from going to the floor and eventually 37 who could start the whole process over again,” Rules Chairman Tom Cole of Oklahoma said entering the meeting. “It’s just overly complicated, and we ought to just pick a winner.”

Republicans who supported a higher bar for starting the process of picking a speaker on the floor saw it as a shield against another public display of discord.

“We need to have a supermajority before we go to the floor,” Florida Rep, Kat Cammack said ahead of Wednesday’s meeting. “No one wants to go to the floor unless we have a supermajority. The American people deserve better than having another circus play out on the House floor.”

Even if the rules changed, Kentucky Rep. Thomas Massie cast doubt that the process of tapping a new speaker could be neat or quick behind closed doors. A Jordan supporter, he said it would be difficult to unite 217 Republicans behind a candidate without a public vote.

“People have to say publicly therefore, otherwise, you don’t know who the holdouts are,” Massie said. “Can we do that in our own conference without going to the floor? I’m not sure. Some people think we can.”

Caitlin Reilly, Caroline Coudriet, Ariel Cohen, Michael Macagnone, David Lerman and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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