House Republicans remain badly divided over their two choices for speaker in the aftermath of the ouster of Kevin McCarthy from the speakership – and are bracing for the possibility that neither House Majority Leader Steve Scalise nor House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan can get the 217 votes needed to be elected speaker.
The deep uncertainty has heightened talk in GOP circles that a dark-horse candidate could emerge, as McCarthy himself refused on Monday to rule out a return to the speakership if Scalise or Jordan fail to win the votes to assume the most powerful position in Congress.
“I’m going to allow the conference to do their work,” McCarthy said repeatedly at a Monday news conference, refusing to publicly endorse Scalise or Jordan for the job.
The comments – and the 11th-hour talk of a McCarthy comeback, which is still seen as a long-shot – underscore the deep turmoil that exists this week as Republicans struggle to coalesce behind a speaker following last week’s unprecedented events when eight Republicans joined with Democrats to remove McCarthy from the speakership. Moreover, Republicans are in active talks to raise the threshold needed for the number of votes to win the conference’s nomination for the speakership – a key issue that could hobble Jordan’s or Scalise’s bid and could end with a new candidate altogether.
The internal talks come as emotions remain raw after McCarthy was ousted following a right-wing revolt after the California Republican relied on Democrats to help advance a short-term spending bill to keep the government open. On Monday, McCarthy had choice words for the eight GOP members, saying they “love the cameras” and were interested in “pettiness” – a sentiment echoed by many of his allies within the conference.
“Many will refuse to support who the eight ‘traitors’ coalesce around because they don’t want the 96% to give into the 4%,” one House GOP member told CNN. “Many refuse to reward the 4%.”
Rep. Mike Lawler, a freshman New York Republican, said that McCarthy “is the right person to lead,” and questioned whether anyone else can secure enough votes to win the speakership.
“Who can? Does anybody have the votes?” he asked as he walked into McCarthy’s office.
Some of the Republicans who voted to remove McCarthy are making clear they won’t back down as the California Republican leaves the door open to returning to the speakership, further underscoring the uncertainty inside the conference.
Rep. Tim Burchett of Tennessee told CNN, “We’re aren’t relenting.” Rep. Nancy Mace of South Carolina sent CNN a poll showing the majority of Americans and even Republicans support McCarthy’s ouster. And Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida compared McCarthy’s comments at his Monday news conference to a “death rattle.” He also tweeted “math is real” and “time to move forward.”
Mace and Gaetz have both already thrown their support behind Jordan.
“The most popular thing Congress has done since Kevin McCarthy became speaker was vacate him,” Mace told CNN.
Some centrist Republicans are now calling to restore McCarthy as speaker after the attacks on Israel, expressing concern the House remains paralyzed without a speaker and worried they won’t be able to coalesce around a new candidate quickly.
When asked if it’s feasible for McCarthy to return, another GOP lawmaker and McCarthy ally said it’s a “possibility” but said a lot will depend on how Monday’s House GOP conference meeting shakes out. Others speculated McCarthy would have to cut a deal with Democrats in order to prevail, which he refused to do last week.
If no one can get 217 votes to be elected speaker, it remains to be seen whether another candidate will emerge – and several Republicans are suggesting that remains a distinct possibility. Among the names floated in addition to McCarthy: Reps. Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, interim House Speaker Patrick McHenry of North Carolina and House Rules Chairman Tom Cole, also of Oklahoma.
The GOP conference meets Monday evening for the first time since last week. Then, there will be a candidate forum on Tuesday and an internal leadership election on Wednesday.
What could change the dynamics in the conference: Whether House Republicans adopt new rules to achieve the needed votes to become speaker.
Indeed, House Republicans are expected to debate Monday evening whether to make it harder for candidates to win their conference’s nomination for speaker – in an effort to avoid a protracted floor fight like the one that occurred after McCarthy won the gavel after 15 ballots in January.
The idea is to make sure that the internal squabbling happens out of public view and behind closed doors, so the candidate can emerge from the conference with enough votes to be elected speaker on the first ballot.
The proposal is being pushed by Reps. Chip Roy of Texas and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania – two members who represent opposite wings of the conference – and they are suggesting Republicans raise the threshold to win the nomination from a simple majority of the conference, which is 111 members, to a majority of the House – currently 217 with vacancies. Last week, 94 members sent a letter asking for that change to be formalized in the rules.
The strategy would prevent the conference from moving forward to the floor without enough consensus to actually elect a speaker. The thinking behind these tactics is that they could avoid the optics of round after round of televised failed House floor votes.
That means the candidate could only afford to lose four GOP votes before winning the conference nomination. But if neither Scalise nor Jordan can get the 217 votes internally, some say that’s when another candidate could emerge.
This story has been updated with additional developments.