The jockeying to replace Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as House speaker began moments after the ousted leader shocked his colleagues in a closed meeting Tuesday night by declaring that he would not run again for the speakership — or even name a preferred successor.
According to multiple people in the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe how the chaotic events played out, the shaken GOP lawmakers immediately formed smaller huddles with like-minded peers, beginning the process of determining what happens now that a House speaker had been deposed for the first time in history.
The process rapidly accelerated Wednesday when Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), McCarthy’s second-in-command, officially announced a bid for speaker, as did Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a longtime conservative gadfly. Other candidates could add their names to the mix in coming days, and the rush to fill the post underlined the persistent intraparty divisions that have plagued House Republicans.
Both Scalise and Jordan are deeply conservative. But Jordan has taken on a firebrand role — aggressively pursuing President Biden’s son Hunter, for example, and refusing to cooperate with the Jan. 6 committee — while Scalise has held a more traditional position in the House GOP establishment, serving as Republican whip for eight years before becoming majority leader.
Those style differences could be crucial as the House GOP tries to regroup and decides how to present itself heading into the 2024 elections.
For now, the House remains unsettled — its leadership uncertain, its future unclear, its members angry — even as the latest government spending measure is set to expire Nov. 18, lining up another potential shutdown fight, and lawmakers disagree sharply over whether to continue sending aid to Ukraine.
Scalise sent a letter to colleagues Wednesday declaring his intention to run for the top job, saying he could unify the fractured party given his “proven track record of bringing together the diverse array of viewpoints within our Conference to build consensus where others thought it impossible.” So did Jordan, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee and helped found the ultraconservative Freedom Caucus, attacking “far-left progressive policies” that he said “are destroying our communities.”
Though Congress has adjourned until next week, many lawmakers stuck around Washington on Wednesday to hold meetings with those seeking the speakership and others looking to move up or into the Republican leadership ranks. Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick T. McHenry (N.C.), in an interim role, told the conference that Republicans would gather for a candidate forum Tuesday and then hold a vote for speaker during a meeting Wednesday.
If a consensus candidate emerges, which is still a big uncertainty among a conference that is divided and wounded after the McCarthy ouster, House members will head to the floor as early as Wednesday to begin the speakership election.
The House paralysis is affecting other branches of government, since no legislation or other measures can come to the floor. Addressing the turmoil, the president said the federal government has “a lot of work to do” to reach a spending agreement in a few weeks, but “more than anything, we need to change the poisonous atmosphere in Washington.”
“We have strong disagreements, but we need to stop seeing each other as enemies. We need to talk to one another,” Biden said.
Across the Capitol, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) weighed in, praising McCarthy and offering a rare comment on internal matters.
“I have no advice to give to House Republicans, except one: I hope whoever the next speaker is, gets rid of the ‘motion to vacate,’” McConnell said. “I think it makes the speaker’s job impossible, and the American people expect us to have a functioning government.”
When McCarthy became speaker in January after a hard-fought battle, he agreed to a demand by Republican opponents that let any lawmaker offer a motion to vacate the speakership and remove him from the job. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) introduced such a motion Tuesday, and eight Republicans joined all Democrats to make McCarthy the first speaker in history to lose his job that way.
Much of the rhetoric Wednesday by Scalise, Jordan and other potential speaker hopefuls, as well as their supporters, focused on unifying the Republican caucus. “I think the new speaker will have a tremendous opportunity to put this conference back together, earn the trust and move us back to where we should be,” Rep. Keith Self (R-Tex.) said.
But whoever gets the job will still need to contend with the GOP hard-liners who have called for disruptive actions, from allowing a default to shutting down the government, rather than compromising with Democrats who control the Senate and the White House.
As Scalise and Jordan sought to build support for their leadership bids, other Republicans jockeyed for lower-ranking posts.
Majority Whip Tom Emmer (Minn.) is seeking to move up one spot to majority leader, while his deputy, Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (Pa.), hopes to take Emmer’s job. Both are unopposed at the moment, but Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), who has the fourth-ranking spot in the GOP hierarchy, is considering a run against Emmer for majority leader, multiple people say. A person close to Stefanik did not deny her interest, saying she is “focused on doing her job as conference chair right now, which includes the important task of helping elect a new speaker of the House.”
Although Emmer is not a declared candidate for speaker, some of his colleagues think he is positioning himself in case there is insufficient support for Scalise or Jordan. Some of the GOP rebels who ousted McCarthy had already approached Emmer about seeking the speakership even before they made their move against McCarthy, arguing that he has appeal and relationships across all factions of the conference.
Emmer is close with former Freedom Caucus chair Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), for example, and would probably get his support as well as that of other lawmakers who supported the McCarthy ouster. Emmer served two terms as the chair of the National Republican Campaign Committee, helping Republicans regain the House majority, though narrowly, and forming relationships that could be an asset if he seeks the speakership.
Many Republicans on Tuesday night started encouraging Scalise to run. Known as McCarthy’s happy warrior, Scalise has remained loyal despite some tension between the two men, and many in the party see him as the logical successor to McCarthy. Scalise was seriously wounded in a shooting at a congressional baseball practice in June 2017, an incident that led to an outpouring of support from members of both parties.
Many right-leaning Republicans trust Scalise’s conservative credentials and think he is a sincere member of the faction loyal to former president Donald Trump, a view they never held about McCarthy.
Yet Scalise could have downsides for various factions of the party. Far-right lawmakers may be unhappy that he has spent so many years in leadership, arguably making him part of the old guard. At the same time, having MAGA bona fides may cause problems for Scalise with GOP moderates who worry their viewpoints will not be considered.
Another concern for some Republicans is whether Scalise would face challenges given his recent diagnosis of blood cancer. The speakership can be a grueling job, and it comes with demands of constantly being on the road to fundraise for House Republicans. McCarthy excelled at fundraising and broke records.
Scalise’s allies dismiss such worries. “Steve is a fighter and he’s as feisty as can be,” said Rep. Tony Gonzales (R-Tex.), who publicly backed Scalise soon after the McCarthy ouster.
Jordan has long been courted by the right wing of the conference to run for speaker, and some pushed him as an alternative to McCarthy when Republicans took over in January. He has strong relationships in the Freedom Caucus and is embraced by Trump’s MAGA base nationwide. But those distinctions could prevent moderate Republicans from supporting his candidacy, especially among those who represent congressional districts won by Biden.
Still, Jordan has moderated his rebellious inclinations somewhat. He was a supporter of McCarthy and has worked comfortably within the Republican House hierarchy as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
“He’s a very popular conservative across the nation. And I think that that goes a long way to earning people’s trust, not only in this conference, not only in the Congress, but across the nation,” said Self, who indicated he is keeping his “powder dry” but noted his vote for Jordan as speaker earlier this year.
Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), who leads the largest faction of conservatives as chair of the Republican Study Committee, made a pitch to the Texas delegation during a lunch that he could serve in the House GOP leadership, citing his business experience — he has operated 18 McDonald’s franchises in addition to other ventures — as a key reason he could bring a fresh approach to the job.
Hern said some Republicans have asked him to consider running for speaker and that he is looking into it.
Several Republicans said Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), a second-term lawmaker and member of the Freedom Caucus, is watching how the intraparty battle plays out to see whether he could make a pitch for a leadership role. He was seen in the Republicans’ conference room Tuesday evening, checking in with the huddles that formed after McCarthy’s announcement.
But the situation remains highly fluid. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) said he just wants someone who can pull everyone together and “go win,” but added that it would take members having the will to work together across their factions.
Rep. Marcus J. Molinaro (R-N.Y.), whom many Republicans have cited as an emerging leader among the moderates, said Republicans must choose someone who can guide them through the 2024 elections, not just a placeholder in the speaker’s chair.
He added that the Republican conference faces questions that go beyond the speaker fight.
“How do we get past the anger and anxiety we’ve had? How do we govern?” Molinaro asked. “What’s the vision moving forward, and how are you going to change? How are you going to do business in a way that bridges these divides?”
Jacqueline Alemany and Mariana Alfaro contributed to this report.