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House GOP grasps for answers to speaker vacuum

House members weigh staying in Washington through the weekend to try to elect a speaker

Rep. Anna Paulina Luna, R-Fla., leaves a House Republican meeting in the Capitol on Thursday. Luna said she'd back Majority Leader Steve Scalise as speaker on Wednesday but reversed herself a day later.
Rep. Anna Paulina Luna, R-Fla., leaves a House Republican meeting in the Capitol on Thursday. Luna said she'd back Majority Leader Steve Scalise as speaker on Wednesday but reversed herself a day later. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Republicans huddled for more than two hours Thursday but walked away without a game plan for electing a new speaker, as members voiced growing frustration and anger with their inability to govern.

One day after nominating Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana by secret ballot, members of both sides of the fractious Republican conference said they saw no path to finding a candidate who could win a majority vote in the closely divided House, assuming united Democratic opposition.

“We don’t see the light at the end of that tunnel,” said Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark. “That’s a mirage right now. There are very strong divisions and people willing to acknowledge they are not in Scalise’s camp standing just a few feet from him.”

After the conference meeting, Scalise convened a smaller group meeting with a cross-section of members from the GOP “five families,” factions representing different ideological wings of the conference ranging from the Freedom Caucus to the Problem Solvers Caucus, as well as lawmakers who’ve voiced opposition to Scalise.

Among those seen entering the meeting were Freedom Caucus members Andrew Clyde, R-Ga., and Bob Good, R-Va., who continue to support Rep. Jim Jordan’s bid and have committed to opposing Scalise on the floor, at least for now. Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., another Scalise critic, was also seen going into the meeting.

Rep. Mike Lawler, R-N.Y., an ally of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who never publicly committed to either Scalise or Jordan, was also at the meeting.

Rep. Keith Self, R-Texas, another Jordan backer, left the smaller group meeting saying that he didn’t ask Scalise to quit the race. But he made clear that a change at the top was needed given Congress was likely to be stuck with another massive omnibus spending package given pledges to the contrary.

“I think that we have got to ask for new leadership, new leadership in this conference, so that we can change the trajectory of Washington,” Self said.

[Scalise working to lock down speaker votes as pessimism grows]

With no sign of imminent progress, Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., who is fulfilling a caretaker role, didn’t rule out keeping the House in session through the weekend to elect a speaker. He said he would make a decision on weekend plans in consultation with the GOP conference.

‘Not cutting any deals’

Scalise called the earlier GOP conference meeting “very constructive” but ruled out making side deals or concessions to his critics to win their votes.

“I’m not cutting any deals,” Scalise told reporters. “I want to meet in front of all of our members, answer every question, and just continue to work through to unite and bring our conference together and address issues as they come up.”

McCarthy lost his speakership last week after eight GOP detractors, backed by Democrats, voted to oust him, saying he had not lived up to the promises he made to win his office in January.

“We have people obviously of different backgrounds that have different passions,” Scalise said. “We’re going to continue to go through this process as we grow our support more towards getting this resolved and getting the House back open.”

But the longer the House remains frozen in its tracks without a speaker, the more support for Scalise may be at risk.

One day after announcing her support for the Louisianan, Florida Rep. Anna Paulina Luna withdrew it.

“I need someone that can unite the conference,” Luna said in explaining her turnaround. “We’ll be going with the [Donald] Trump endorsement.”

The former president, in a Fox News interview Thursday, expressed concern about Scalise’s health after the lawmaker was diagnosed with blood cancer. Scalise, 58, has said the cancer was caught early and that his treatment is going well.

Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C., said there are probably 25 to 30 “no” votes on Scalise as of Thursday, and he argued that Scalise “burned a lot of bridges” working to block a rule change that would have required 217 votes in conference to pick a speaker, knowing that he didn’t have that support.

Still, Scalise retains support from at least a bare majority in his conference, though some, like Norman, said they are committed to voting for him only on the first ballot. Others said Scalise is a fighter who would emerge victorious, no matter how long it takes.

“I think Steve Scalise will be the next speaker,” said Rep. Dan Meuser, R-Pa. “He’s been in my district many times. He says what he means but he doesn’t say it mean. He knows how to get along with people and that’s what he’s working on right now.”

While Scalise may not have the votes at present, neither does Jordan, lawmakers said. “He can’t get to 217,” said Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, a Scalise backer who said there’s no way he’d vote for Jordan.

Backup options?

With questions about the ability of both Jordan and Scalise to get the requisite votes, considerations of potential backup options are percolating.

McHenry; Majority Whip Tom Emmer, R-Minn.; Rules Chairman Tom Cole, R-Okla.; Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.; Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La.; Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla.; and Republican Study Committee Chairman Kevin Hern, R-Okla., have all been floated as potential dark-horse options. McCarthy still has his fans as well.

Rep. Carlos Gimenez, R-Fla., a McCarthy ally, said Thursday that the best option may be someone not currently angling to be speaker.

“Maybe there’s somebody there in front of me, OK, who is going to be the next speaker, not even knowing — not even wanting to be the next speaker. And maybe that’s not a bad thing,” Gimenez said.

With no obvious savior candidate, however, lawmakers are also discussing the option of giving McHenry expanded powers as speaker pro tempore for perhaps a month or two to enable the House to function while a search for a permanent speaker continues, Womack said. But such a move would take the House into uncharted territory that has never been tested.

“We’ve never been there,” Womack said. “There’s not a playbook here.”

Still another option, he said, would be for some Democrats to agree to vote “present” in the speaker’s race instead of voting for Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York. Democratic abstentions would lower the threshold needed to elect a speaker, potentially allowing a Republican candidate to win with less than an outright majority. While that option appears unlikely, Womack said, some Democrats might eventually be tempted to take that route in the interest of letting the House get back to business.

“I don’t think we’re there yet,” he said. “Maybe we could eventually get there.”

Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, R-N.Y., a former Jordan supporter who now backs Scalise, said she just wanted to see a resolution reached quickly.

“I have a lot of other things that I’m working on, trying to help my constituents right now, than sitting in that room listening to the people who are being petty and they don’t want to rally around the person who came out with the most votes,” she said.

Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, R-N.Y., leaves House Republicans’ meeting in the Capitol on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul said he was the first to speak in Thursday’s conference meeting.

“We need to fill the chair with a speaker. Every day that goes by, it’s more dangerous. You know, I was on the phone with our friends from Israel, we’re gonna need a supplemental,” McCaul, R-Texas, told reporters outside the conference meeting. “So it’s very dangerous what were doing and I just wanted them to know that, you know, it’s we’re playing with fire.”

“I’ve been up here 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” McCaul added.

Mary Ellen McIntire, Michael Macagnone and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.

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