House Republicans Brace for Drawn-Out Speaker Fight

Photo for The Washington Post by Elizabeth Frantz
Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has said he would return to the speakership if that’s what the House Republican Conference decides is best.

WASHINGTON – House Republicans are settling in for what many expect to be a drawn-out and contentious fight for the speaker’s gavel this week, with simmering internal conflicts muddying the path forward for the two declared candidates.

Less than a week after an intraparty clash that saw Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) removed as speaker of the House, Republicans returned to the Capitol on Monday under increased pressure to coalesce around a leader so that the House can begin work to provide aid to Israel after Hamas-backed attacks left hundreds dead and prompted Israel to declare war. Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.) doesn’t have much authority to do anything besides oversee the election of a new speaker. But some Republicans also have begun back-channel talks with some Democrats to see if both parties could find a way to give McHenry more authority if Republicans cannot coalesce around a speaker this week.

House Republicans are now scrambling to figure out how to govern – and elect a speaker – with only their majority’s votes, while a small group could hold up any progress. The process of electing a speaker has again tested the ideologically fractious conference, with hard-right and moderate lawmakers pushing to ensure their political and electoral needs are represented.

But even the desire to address aid to Israel has not moved the needle toward electing either Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) or Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). Many Republican lawmakers and aides said neither conservative can garner the 217 votes needed to wield the speaker’s gavel.

With no clear front-runner, Republicans are preparing for a days-long process to choose the next speaker. Republican lawmakers met Monday evening to discuss the week ahead and air lingering grievances from last week’s upheaval. It was a relatively staid meeting, according to lawmakers in attendance, but there was no clear consensus on the timing for choosing a leader. Republicans will hold a candidate forum Tuesday and internal votes to nominate a speaker starting Wednesday morning.

“Let’s make sure that this conference has the right leadership in place that it takes to lead us to the next level,” said Rep. Max L. Miller (R-Ohio), who suggested that Republicans take another week to solidify their choices.

Dozens of Republicans, led by Reps. Chip Roy (Tex.) and Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.), have urged a change in the conference rules to elect a speaker, which say that whoever gets 51 percent of the vote, currently 111, would win the majority party’s support for the speakership. Those members would like to change the rule to raise the threshold to 217, the number needed to win on the House floor, so they can avoid repeated rounds of failed ballots that would display their disagreement to the public.

With the speakership vacant, McCarthy attempted to fill the leadership void Monday as he prescribed a five-point plan to immediately support Israel, which many of his allies saw as a signal that he is open to being renominated for speaker.

“It is abundantly clear that McCarthy is unwavering in his commitment to aid Israel, keep our government open and address the current needs of the American people,” said Rep. John S. Duarte (R-Calif.), a freshman moderate in the conference. “He is the rightful speaker who should have remained in his role had it not been for the personal agendas of a handful of individuals who are fixated on causing chaos.”

McCarthy said Monday that he is willing to resume serving as House speaker if enough of the Republicans who voted in favor of his ouster last week are open to his reinstatement.

“Whatever the conference wants, I will do,” McCarthy said during an interview on Hugh Hewitt’s syndicated radio program when asked about a possible return to the job. He echoed that sentiment hours later at a news conference largely focused on the Israel-Hamas war, deflecting direct questions about whether he thinks the situation abroad makes him best suited to lead House Republicans.

It is a notable change from McCarthy, who said Tuesday after his ouster that he would not run for the leadership role again.

Several moderate Republicans welcomed McCarthy’s projected openness to returning to the speakership, stressing that he remains the only viable Republican who can lead during this time. Many echoed McCarthy, who said that he maintains the support of “96 percent” of the members of the House Republican Conference and that the remaining 4 percent who ousted him are “playing politics.”

After McCarthy’s news conference Monday, Rep. Nick LaLota (R-N.Y.) said on X, formerly known as Twitter, that the former speaker “is acting with class and confidence and in the best interests of America.” Rep. Michael Lawler (R-N.Y.) said he believes McCarthy should be reinstated.

“Obviously, anything’s possible in this place. But I think when I have spoken to my colleagues, the vast majority of people are angry. They’re disgusted by what happened,” Lawler told reporters. “As I said, it is the single most destructive thing I’ve ever seen in politics. And it doesn’t even make sense.”

McCarthy’s comments come amid genuine concerns in the GOP conference that neither Scalise or Jordan can garner the necessary 217 votes to become speaker. Moderate Republicans, some of whom represent swing districts that President Biden won in 2020, remain skeptical that Scalise or Jordan would represent their interests if elected speaker, given that both are extremely conservative.

More-moderate Republicans who have served in Congress alongside Scalise say privately that he has not shown much openness in the past to legislating with their concerns in mind, according to several Republican lawmakers, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations. Scalise also has co-sponsored many conservative bills, including several that are antiabortion, and those lawmakers worry he would put those bills on the floor, making for tough votes that could hurt their chances at reelection next year.

However, some Republicans said Scalise and his staff are more willing to incorporate moderate voices at the negotiating table, with several pointing to his instrumental role in persuading some vulnerable incumbents to pass Republicans’ border security bill.

“There’s no doubt that both of them are very conservative parts of our conference,” said Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Tex.). “This is where things differ, is Steve is a very personable person. . . . He has been a large part of why we’re in the majority.”

Vulnerable incumbents also worry that Jordan, who has positioned himself as a MAGA firebrand, could hurt them electorally because he is a known entity to Democratic voters and may spark increased Democratic engagement in the election. Moreover, they fear that, as an ally to former president Donald Trump, Jordan would support MAGA candidates over vulnerable incumbents in Republican primaries.

Several incumbents were shocked to see a mailer sent by Jordan on behalf of the House Freedom Fund, the House Freedom Caucus’s fundraising arm, listing Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), Elijah Crane (R-Ariz.), Scott Perry (R-Pa.) and Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.) as the “four incumbent priority races” next year.

Even so, many Republicans have come out in support of Jordan. In pitch meetings with moderates, Jordan has promised to give them political cover because he knows how to control the partisan demands from the House Freedom Caucus, which he co-founded years ago.

Still, Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) said there is an organic effort among rank-and-file members to reelect McCarthy as speaker.

“He had 96 percent of the vote, and many want to stick with him,” Bacon said.

Republicans were already nervous heading into the week, and McCarthy’s comments have some members wondering if what was expected to be a complicated week just got even more complicated.

“I believe if we could get to 218 for Kevin, Jim Jordan and I would join together to be part of that. The challenge really is, is the Gang of Eight, so to speak,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). “If Kevin comes back for a day, we get something done. If he comes back for a week, we get more done. If he doesn’t come back, we have to begin anew.”

Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) said that he would support Jordan if it is a binary choice between him and Scalise, but that he would completely back McCarthy if he were to jump into the race, though he doubts that will happen.

Many Republicans, though they want McCarthy as speaker, know he lacks the 217 votes necessary to win the gavel back on the floor. It remains unclear exactly how he could get the job back unless he works to convince Democrats that the House needs a speaker at a time when Israel needs the United States’ help.

But many of the eight Republicans who voted to oust him were upset with McCarthy for relying on Democratic votes to avert a government shutdown. McCarthy on Monday defended his actions, suggesting that the state of the country would have been worse off had he not passed a budget relying on Democratic votes.

Asked whether he would support McCarthy for speaker, Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), who was instrumental in the ouster, repeatedly told reporters “no.”

When asked about McCarthy’s comeback attempt, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a longtime McCarthy ally and confidant, was blunt.

“I’ve committed to Mr. Scalise,” he said.

Without a full-time speaker, the House has been limited in its ability to operate. The violence that has erupted in the Middle East has underscored its limitations, as some members press for an aid package to Israel.

In his interview with Hewitt, McCarthy emphasized Congress’s need to project strength and solidarity with Israel in the midst of the conflict. He also pointed out current matters he believes would have been handled differently had he remained in leadership.

“We would have gotten more of the intel,” McCarthy said, referencing the conflict. Under his watch, the former speaker asserted, the House on Monday would have put forth a resolution “to show the world we’re united, calling around to other world leaders to come to join.”

Furthermore, McCarthy said, under his leadership, the House would be looking at what ammunition and resources should be provided to Israel, evaluating sanctions against Iran, and “going after any antisemitism that is happening not just on our college campuses, but directly in Congress itself as well.”

Even so, some of his closest allies know the reality of reinstating McCarthy as speaker means siding with Democrats. While some moderates are seeking that, many Republicans would rather stick with a speaker who sides with their majority.

“I believe there’s a path for Jim Jordan. I don’t know if there’s a path for Kevin,” Issa said. “I’m championing Jim Jordan because I think he can bring us all together. I think he can get those – most of those – eight votes without losing any votes somewhere else.”