House Republicans coming out of a Monday night speaker candidate forum expressed some cautious optimism that their unprecedented 20-day stretch without a leader — and resulting shutdown of legislative business in that chamber — is nearly over. But members chastened by recent history weren’t yet ready to declare victory.
The GOP conference is set to vote Tuesday morning after hearing from the remaining eight candidates, a crop that thinned out slightly Monday night when Rep. Dan Meuser, R-Pa., dropped out. He said he had other commitments he wanted to focus on, including working on former President Donald Trump’s campaign in his home state.
“The House will be in good hands with one of those members that are up there now,” Meuser said. “I’m more optimistic now than ever.”
The remaining speaker candidates are Jack Bergman of Michigan, Byron Donalds of Florida, Tom Emmer of Minnesota, Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, Mike Johnson of Louisiana, Gary Palmer of Alabama, Austin Scott of Georgia and Pete Sessions of Texas.
According to New York Republican Nick LaLota, conference members were given one minute to ask a question, with each candidate allotted 30 seconds to answer.
Lawmakers at the meeting said the candidates discussed their views on a range of topics, including how to handle the Nov. 17 deadline to pass appropriations bills and avoid a partial government shutdown.
Johnson said some candidates were for a stopgap funding bill, while others favored starting negotiations with the Senate on full-year bills even though the House has passed less than half its dozen bills and the Senate hasn’t passed any. Earlier on CNN, the latter appeared to be the approach Hern favored, saying the two chambers could agree on 75 percent of agency spending for fiscal 2024 and rely on a continuing resolution for the rest.
Supplemental aid to Ukraine and Israel and for border security also came up. LaLota said “general sentiment” in the room was to vote on those items separately rather than as a combination package, as President Joe Biden’s $106 billion emergency funding proposal envisions.
Members gave a range of predictions on how long it would take for the process of electing a speaker to play out, but they generally agreed that one of the eight men making their pitches would ultimately become speaker.
“I think we’ll have a speaker tomorrow night,” Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., said; LaLota cited the odds as “slightly better than 50-50″ that the process would wrap up by the end of the week. “The morale in the room seems higher, the hope that we do it this week seems higher than the previous weeks,” LaLota said. “There seems to be some sense of compromise in the room.”
Johnson didn’t want to put a timeframe on it, arguing that candidates shouldn’t be given an artificial “shot clock” to win the necessary 217 votes because that gives others an incentive to wait them out. But he also cautioned that continued delay puts Republicans at risk of needing to form a coalition government of sorts with Democrats in order to get anything done.
“Every hour that this goes on we’ve got members who are getting closer and closer to wanting to try unconventional approaches,” Johnson said, adding that he’s warned GOP colleagues of the pain that would lie ahead in needing to get bipartisan votes for rules for floor debate every week for the remainder of this Congress.
At Tuesday’s conference meeting to vote for the speaker nominee, members will vote in multiple rounds until one candidate secures 50 percent of the votes plus one. LaLota said he thinks it’ll go three or four rounds. “We think it’ll go actually rather quick,” he said.
But winning on the floor is a different matter, and that’s where other recent candidates have struggled. Any GOP nominee can only afford to lose four votes if all members are present and voting and all Democrats vote for Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., as they have been.
That means the GOP speaker nominee needs greater than 98 percent party unity.
The party is looking to pick its third prospective replacement to former speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., after Majority Leader Steve Scalise, R-La. and Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, both withdrew from the race.
Scalise defeated Jordan in a head-to-head matchup but withdrew after Jordan backers made it clear they would vote for the Ohioan on the floor. Swing-district Republicans, appropriators and other Scalise allies then prevented Jordan from receiving the votes necessary to become speaker in three floor votes last week.
Jordan withdrew Friday after the conference voted 86-112 in favor of him dropping out after he lost another floor vote in the face of dug-in opposition.
Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., a staunch Jordan supporter, wasn’t confident that any of the candidates could get over the hump.
“There’s a good chance that whoever gets nominated is not going to get to 217,” said Massie, who hasn’t endorsed a candidate. “So I’m done thinking about it really deeply until somebody has a plan to get to 217.”
Bacon, one of the holdouts against Jordan, said he would support any of the eight candidates if they won the conference’s support. He said he blocked Jordan as a response to a “minority of the majority” effort to expel McCarthy and block Scalise.
“That’s why I stood up and did what I did,” Bacon said. “Now if people play by the rules and they support the majority of the majority and they don’t undercut someone that’s won, I’m going to be there because that’s the way it’s supposed to be done.”
Emmer has emerged as a front-runner, due to his experience as the majority whip and as the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee for the 2020 and 2022 cycles. He’s also earned McCarthy’s endorsement for the job.
Emmer allies are highlighting his role in flipping the House during the 2022 cycle, when the party picked up nine seats. While the “red wave” Republicans hoped for in 2022 never materialized, House Republicans netted a pickup of 24 seats during the two cycles Emmer led the operation.
“Tom Emmer has the foundation, you know, NRCC chair and the whip, he knows what he’s doing,” Bacon, who stopped short of making an endorsement, said.
Emmer’s also raised $7.6 million so far in 2023 for the 2024 election cycle, and held 56 fundraisers for members and candidates so far this year.
However, Emmer has faced some questions from supporters of Trump on whether Emmer has been sufficiently loyal to the former president.
Emmer and Trump spoke this weekend, a source familiar with the conversation said Monday, and Emmer allies are highlighting his support of Trump during both the 2016 and 2020 campaigns.
A ‘leader’ and ‘listener’
Another candidate with a base of support is Donalds, a member of the House Freedom Caucus in his second term.
He’s earned the backing of several high-profile members of the Florida delegation, including Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Gimenez, who opposed Jordan’s candidacy, and Kat Cammack.
“He’s a leader, he’s a listener,” Diaz-Balart said of Donalds. “He’s tough and he’s straight. And I think he has a legitimate shot at becoming the next speaker.”
Donalds is also positioned well with other Freedom Caucus members, and he has the support of some of the Texas delegation members despite that state having their own candidate in the race. Texas GOP Reps. Ronny Jackson and Chip Roy have endorsed Donalds.
Two leaders of the Republican Study Committee — Hern, the current chairman, and Johnson, an ex-chairman and current vice chairman — are also seeking the job.
Hern told CNN Monday that his work with the RSC has led him to foster connections with a range of members across the ideological spectrum, preparing him well to unite the conference during this contentious time.
“We already work on a weekly basis with, you know, 80 percent of the entire conference, which makes it a natural that we are already reuniting, working on policy that matters to everybody in the entire conference,” he said
Bergman, a retired Marine lieutenant general, has picked up endorsements from four fellow members of the Michigan delegation. He’s framing himself as a consensus builder and vowing to only serve for the remainder of this Congress in a caretaker role.
Rounding out the field are Sessions, the former Rules Committee chairman; Palmer, chairman of the Republican Policy Committee; and Scott, a senior member of the Armed Services committee who launched a losing, last-minute bid against Jordan earlier this month.
Many Republicans are desperate for the conference to get back to work, including Rep. Marc Molinaro, R-N.Y., who said he would back any of the candidates on the floor.
“Anyone who went home would have heard from their constituents that enough is enough,” he said. “We have to get back to governing, we’ve got to get back to the work that we were sent here to do and therefore I do think the conference is at the moment in time where we can get there.”
But others, including Roy, aren’t willing to commit to supporting the nominee.
“I think we need to focus on making sure someone’s gonna lead this party in the right direction,” Roy said. “We’ll get in there, we’ll hear from all nine… There’s a number of those guys that I can support on the floor. But we’ll see how it plays out.”
Laura Weiss, David Lerman, Ellyn Ferguson and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.