The House Republican Party is sliding even deeper into disarray as it feuds over its next speaker, apparently oblivious to the picture of US government dysfunction it is sending at a moment of worsening global crises.
GOP lawmakers did select Steve Scalise as their nominee for the job that is second in the line of presidential succession on Wednesday. But by nightfall it was clear the Louisiana Republican and current majority leader was struggling to find the votes he needs to secure the gavel during a floor vote.
‘We have a lot of work to do’: Scalise speaks after nomination for House speaker
While party leaders still hoped to hold a vote on the speakership in the full chamber on Thursday, senior Republicans were also considering what to do should Scalise lack the support to win the job, CNN’s Manu Raju and Melanie Zanona reported.
“Steve is nowhere near 217,” said one Republican member, referring to the tally Scalise would need on the floor to become speaker. But a number of GOP sources also doubt that Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, the runner-up to Scalise in Wednesday’s closed-door election, can unite the party and claim the top job either. That could create an opening for a compromise candidate, whoever that may be, to emerge.
The worsening debacle in the House follows the ouster of former Speaker Kevin McCarthy last week by eight Republicans voting with Democrats.
In theory, Scalise is on the cusp of becoming the most powerful Republican in Washington. In reality, even if he can somehow win the votes he needs, he risks neutering his potential House speakership before it starts with concessions to extremists needed to win the gavel.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because Scalise is sizing up the same dilemmas that McCarthy faced during the 15 rounds of balloting it took him to win the job in January – and that eventually led to his ouster as speaker last week.
There were also increasing signs on Wednesday night of a growing brawl for the position of majority leader, which could open up if Scalise becomes speaker. Several candidates, including Reps. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, Kevin Hern of Oklahoma and Byron Donalds of Florida, plan to run. But some GOP leaders are irritated that the jockeying is distracting from the imperative to find a speaker.
As soon as Scalise edged ahead of Jordan on a vote of 113 to 99 on Wednesday, the magnitude of his challenge became apparent. He was still well short of the 217 votes – a majority of the current House – needed to claim the speakership on the floor. That means he can only lose four votes in a GOP conference that surpassed even its own reputation this week for stunt politics, divisions and chaos.
“We still have work to do,” Scalise told reporters – a remarkable understatement before heading into individual meetings with members who have refused to back him but often struggle to define exactly what they want. Their demands and grandstanding is in keeping with a Donald Trump-era GOP that is better at tearing institutions down than governing.
Scalise worked overnight on Wednesday to try to build a majority that could sweep him to the speakership. Several members of the conference have already said they plan to vote for Rep. Jim Jordan, even though the hardline Ohio Republican has pledged to nominate his colleague ahead of a House vote that party leaders hope, but cannot guarantee, will take place on Thursday.
The party’s regicidal week after ousting McCarthy has underscored the complications of the tiny House majority it eked out in the midterm elections and the searing internal divides that make the GOP conference unmanageable. The power vacuum is sending a message of incompetence to the moderate voters in swing districts the party needs to keep the House in 2024. And the negligence represented by leaving the House chamber empty during a moment of global crisis, following the horrific Hamas incursion into Israel, is handing valuable propaganda victories to adversaries who argue that US power is waning.
“We need to govern and we can’t govern without a speaker,” Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday. “The longer we play games with this … that only emboldens our adversaries like Chairman Xi (who) talks about how democracy doesn’t work. Putin loves this, the Ayatollah loves this.”
Scalise knows adversity. He battled back from grievous injuries he suffered in a shooting at a congressional baseball practice in 2017 and has recently been treated for blood cancer. In order to secure a sustainable speakership, the Louisianan must avoid falling into the traps that doomed McCarthy in his painstaking search for his own governing majority in January. The decisive blow to the former speaker was made possible by a concession he granted to hardliners that allowed a single member to call a vote to oust him. Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz used that trip wire and was joined by seven other Republicans to vote him out.
While Scalise is more conservative and popular than McCarthy ended up being in the GOP conference and is known as a strong fundraiser – a key consideration for members eying reelection – it’s difficult to see what he has to offer holdouts who ultimately turned against McCarthy. The Californian really only had two red lines – an unwillingness to trigger a US debt default and shut down the government. When both those scenarios seemed inevitable in recent months, McCarthy used Democratic votes to advance stop-gap solutions – a strategy that ended up being fatal to his speakership. His appeasement of the far right made no difference, even after he inserted conservative culture war priorities into appropriations bills, expelled high-profile Democrats from key committees and even initiated an impeachment inquiry into President Joe Biden.
Several high-profile rebel Republicans warned on Wednesday that they would not vote for Scalise, and that he was still well short of the votes needed to win.
Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene – who spent considerable time forging a political bond with McCarthy and is a vehement Trump supporter more in tune temperamentally and ideologically with Jordan than Scalise – expressed concerns about Scalise’s health. “Unfortunately, Steve is going through a cancer battle of his own,” Greene told CNN’s Manu Raju, alluding to her father whom she said she lost from cancer. “And I like Steve a lot and I like him so much I would like to see him put his full efforts into defeating that.”
South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace said she couldn’t vote for Scalise, at least initially, because before he entered Congress he delivered a speech to a White supremacist group founded by former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke. Scalise later apologized and said he regretted the move. But Mace, who voted to oust McCarthy, told CNN’s Jake Tapper: “I’m trying to reconcile it, and right now, I can’t.”
Scalise may also be paying a price for being seen as a member of the House GOP establishment in a party that lionizes outsiders and insurgents. He failed to win over another hardliner, Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, despite meeting with her privately. “My main concerns are the way this place is run,” Boebert said. “I think that there’s a problem with leadership in our conference.”
As the evening wore on Wednesday, senior Republicans were becoming increasingly pessimistic that Scalise would ever secure sufficient support to win the gavel. “He has no path to 217,” one top House Republican said on condition of anonymity.
The situation is infuriating some of the mainstream Republicans whose victories in key districts last year paved the way to the GOP majority and whose reelection races will decide the destiny of the House next year.
“The majority of the majority has been disregarded by a handful of members repeatedly and flagrantly and as a result we deposed … our speaker a week ago with 208 Democrats,” said New York Rep. Mike Lawler said, while demanding accountability for the extremists who ousted McCarthy. “The idea that somehow rearranging the deck chairs here is going to fix the problem or somehow that Kevin McCarthy was the problem is laughable,” he told CNN.
The nature of the chaotic Republican conference means that if Scalise does somehow manage to squeak into the speaker’s chair, his troubles may only be beginning. Republicans will want their new leader to deliver huge spending cuts and legislation to satisfy their goals but will still be unable to force the hands of the Senate or the White House, which are both controlled by Democrats.
Laura Blessing, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Government Affairs Institute, said that even if Scalise eventually breaks through, he will face exactly the same intractable problems that McCarthy failed to solve, beginning with a possible government shutdown next month.
“The job didn’t get easier because the person doing the job has changed,” Blessing said. “The new speaker is going to inherit the inbox of the old speaker.”