The race for the Speakership is wide open as House Republicans head into a high-stakes stretch this week.
The House GOP conference Tuesday is set to hear from its two declared candidates for Speaker: Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) — neither of whom have emerged as a front-runner in the race.
Adding to the dynamics, deposed Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) opened the door to a second stint as Speaker on Monday, as lawmakers deal with the reality of a House unable to act in response to the unprecedented Hamas attack on Israel that took place over the weekend.
But McCarthy’s detractors appeared in no mood to allow for his return, and neither Jordan nor Scalise seemed to have a lock on the closed-door conference vote planned for Wednesday — leaving the House GOP without a clear path through the Speaker conundrum.
“We’re kind of like a scattergram — we’re all over the map in terms of the way forward,” said Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), a leading appropriator, adding to reporters that talks were “civil” during a conference meeting Monday evening, but that there are still “hard feelings” after McCarthy’s ouster.
“This is a hard conference to lead,” Womack continued. “There’s a lot of free agents in there, a lot of people that just aren’t going to forfeit their individual voting card. … But I think right now, the need for the conference is to function more like a team.”
Few Republicans expected the process of choosing a new leader of the fractured conference — in the narrow House majority — to be a simple task, and many are uneasily eyeing a Nov. 17 government funding deadline.
The war in Israel — which has killed at least 1,500 people, including 11 Americans — has greatly added to the pressure on lawmakers to install a new Speaker.
“The world’s watching what’s happening, and we need to come together and unify behind a Speaker,” Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said Monday.
But that pressure hasn’t yet led to a consensus.
The House GOP met Monday night for the first time in almost a week, a closed-door sit down that lawmakers described as an opportunity to “vent,” with some anger being directed toward the eight Republicans who voted last Tuesday with all present Democrats to boot McCarthy.
“There’s anger, but that’s just what you’re gonna expect,” Rep. Tim Burchett (R-Tenn.), one of the Republicans who voted to oust McCarthy, told reporters following the meeting, adding that “people are upset.”
“They’re not gonna go away just by simply ignoring them, so I think this was healthy. It was very much, you know, strong demeanor, but it wasn’t yelling and screaming, which is great. And I think everybody expressed their points of view, and now we have to find a pathway forward,” Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.) said.
McCarthy also threw another curveball into the process Monday, when he reversed himself and expressed an openness to a second go at the Speakership.
In a Monday morning press conference that leaned heavily on his pro-Israel background and the crisis in the region, McCarthy deflected questions on whether he sees a scenario where he could be a candidate for Speaker; if he would accept a nomination to the top spot; or if he thinks he is the best person to lead the House amid the conflict in the Middle East.
“That’s a decision by the conference,” McCarthy told reporters, reiterating the sentiment multiple times.
He also repeatedly cited the strong support he still has in the House GOP conference.
“The only thing I would ask my conference — you have 96 percent of the conference in one place and you’re allowing 4 percent, with the Democrats playing politics, that now have putting the doubt inside this body,” McCarthy told reporters during the press conference Monday. “That is wrong.”
McCarthy last week told reporters in a press conference shortly after his ouster that he would not seek the Speakership again.
A handful of moderates are endorsing his comeback bid, a sentiment that has increased amid the turmoil in Israel.
Rep. Carlos A Gimenez (R-Fla.) told the conference Monday that he only supports McCarthy at this point and plans to nominate him Wednesday.
But McCarthy’s path back to the gavel remains difficult — if not completely blocked — as hard-line conservatives dig in on their opposition to the California Republican serving in the top spot, a right-wing blockade that could once again sideline McCarthy from the Speakership.
“Not a single person who voted against Kevin last week is of a different mind this week,” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who led the effort to oust McCarthy, told The Hill on Monday. “Plenty who voted for Kevin last week would never vote for him again.”
“Math is real,” he added. “It is time to move forward.”
Gaetz has said he would support either Scalise or Jordan if either of them get the most support in the GOP conference.
Burchett told The Hill that he does not see a scenario where he could support McCarthy for Speaker again; Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.) said Monday that McCarthy is “not gonna be Speaker;” and a source familiar with Rep. Nancy Mace’s (R-S.C.) thinking said the congresswoman would be unlikely to throw her support behind McCarthy.
“She’s all in for Jim Jordan,” the source noted.
McCarthy’s openness to a comeback bid comes as both Scalise and Jordan have been unable to emerge as a leader in the race for Speaker.
“I certainly didn’t feel from the conversations that I’ve heard or the speeches that I heard in there that any, we’re any closer or farther away from the resolution of this matter. But I think it’s high time,” said Rep. Dave Joyce (R-Ohio), a moderate who hasn’t yet endorsed for Speaker.
But in a sign of the urgency behind selecting a Speaker, some lawmakers Monday night said that despite their endorsements, they will support whichever candidate gets the most support within the conference.
“I’ve endorsed Jim Jordan but I will support Scalise if he gets the majority, and that’s what people have to do,” Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-N.J.) told The Hill, adding that it was a “general theme” throughout the meeting.
“There was many people who said that,” he added.
Any candidate can afford to lose only a handful of Republican votes on the House floor — a difficult math problem that played out over the course of the four days and 15 ballots it took for McCarthy to win the gavel in January.
With an eye toward avoiding a repeat, the House GOP conference this week may vote on a change to the rules that would require the nominee for Speaker to receive support from a majority of the House rather than a majority of the conference.
More than 90 Republicans signed a letter last week endorsing the temporary rules change, and lawmakers emerging from Monday night’s meeting voiced support for the effort. At least one House Republican, however, is opposed to the adjustment.
“I don’t agree with the rules change. … Frankly, in my view, it continues a pattern of empowering a minority,” House Rules Committee Chairman Tom Cole (R-Okla.) said Monday night. “You could have literally three or four people, and they can do it by secret ballot, basically, you know, keep you from getting to a Speaker.”
Some lawmakers said that they believe more time is needed for the conference to coalesce around someone who can get 217 votes.
Rep. Max Miller (R-Ohio), who is supporting Jordan, said that another week is probably needed in order to do so, adding that members are experiencing “whiplash” since McCarthy lost the Speakership.
But it still remains a wide open question as to when the House GOP will finally get a Speaker in place, with members openly wondering how long it will take. Womack said that it “could” be resolved by Wednesday but indicated it is likely a tall task.
“I don’t think Vegas is giving any odds on that right now,” Womack said.
Aris Folley and Emily Brooks contributed.