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Consensus remains elusive as Republicans try to elect a House speaker

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, who along with Rep. Jim Jordan is vying for the speakership, talks to the media Tuesday.
Win McNamee
Getty Images
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise, who along with Rep. Jim Jordan is vying for the speakership, talks to the media Tuesday.

A week after Kevin McCarthy's unprecedented ouster, Republicans are slated to begin the process of choosing his replacement as speaker of the House on Wednesday.

The conference will meet behind closed doors and is expected to cast an initial vote for a nominee. Republicans seem determined to avoid another marathon of public votes — like the 15 rounds it took for McCarthy to secure the gavel in January — and instead come to a consensus privately. Majority Leader Steve Scalise and Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan are both vying for the job, but heading into Wednesday's meeting, neither had enough support to win a majority on the House floor.

Whoever becomes House speaker will take office facing a new war in the Middle East and another looming government funding deadline. And they will still be working with a razor-thin majority to pass any major legislation.

While the dueling crises may add urgency to the situation, Republicans were not confident the process would conclude quickly.

"I don't know if by the end of tomorrow we will have a speaker. I don't know if by the end of this week we will have a speaker," Rep. Kat Cammack, R-Fla., said Tuesday after a conference candidate forum. "If you were to ask me a couple of days ago, pre-Israel being horrifically attacked by Hamas, I would have told you that it would have been a month before we had a speaker."

Rep. Thomas Massie told reporters he put the odds of Republicans electing a speaker Wednesday at 2%.

"There may be people who are dug in" on their preferred candidates, he said.

The conference may find itself again deadlocked, but Massie said this election has key differences from McCarthy's January campaign.

"January was a coronation that was really hard to pull off," he said. "And this is a legitimate speaker race."

Plan to stop a shutdown

Massie, a Jordan supporter, said he asked both candidates Tuesday about their plan to avoid a government shutdown when funding expires Nov. 17. Jordan's plan is one that Massie championed during debt ceiling negotiations: a long-term continuing resolution with a 1% spending cut across the board to take effect in April. That, Massie said, would "take shutdown off the table" and spur the Senate to act on the dozen year-long single-subject spending bills.

"We're voting for two things at once: We're voting for a speaker and a plan for the next 75 days," Massie said. "It's not fair for us to elect a speaker and then hamstring them on their plan if they've got a plan. So Jordan would have a mandate for a CR if he gets elected."

Cammack said that Scalise also voiced support for a CR during the candidate forum, and noted that opposition to a continuing resolution is what put Republicans in this position in the first place: The conference was unable to pass one with only Republican votes, and when McCarthy worked with Democrats to stave off a shutdown, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., filed a motion to vacate the chair.

Cammack said the plan Jordan outlined could lose 90 to 100 Republican votes.

"And without a motion to vacate change, you'd be right back in this position," she added.

Some Republicans want a rule change

Several members, including Reps. Chip Roy, Marcus Molinaro and Brian Fitzpatrick, have proposed temporarily raising the threshold to choose a Republican nominee to 217 votes — the number that would ensure passage on the full House floor — rather than the current standard of a majority of the majority. The move would, in theory, force the conference to resolve its issues internally before a public floor battle.

Cammack said voting on that change would be the "first order of business."

"People are not comfortable going to the floor with a simple majority and then having C-SPAN and the rest of the world watch as we have this fight," she said. "We want to have this family fight behind closed doors where we can actually get someone and who's going to answer all the tough questions. And we will go to the floor united."

Other members were less certain that a formal vote change was necessary; Rep. Juan Ciscomani said the conference may move forward under that agreement rather than an "established rule."

Rep. Tom Cole, the chair of the Rules Committee, called the change a "well intentioned" but "misdirected idea."

"You're empowering a very few number of people to have a veto. That's what got us into this mess in the first place," he said. "Let's just go back to the traditional way of doing things: Have an election. We're doing that. The person who gets the most, the conference should support them ... you literally would have two or three or four members deciding when we were going to the floor."

A crisis in Israel and Gaza

Addressing the ongoing violence in Israel and Gaza will be one of the most pressing issues facing the new speaker. Hamas militants launched brutal attacks against Israel last weekend, killing more than 1,200 people, including at least 14 Americans. Israel has responded with a siege and heavy bombing of the Gaza Strip, which Palestinian health officials say have killed more than 1,000 people.

President Biden on Tuesday vowed that the U.S. would "stand with Israel," pledging to send military systems to replenish Iron Dome, the Israeli air-defense system.

"When Congress returns, I'm going to ask them to take urgent action to fund the national security requirements of our critical partners," Biden said.

But there can be no votes on aid to Israel until there is a new speaker.

The Biden administration hasreportedly considered advancing additional aid for Israel with aid for Ukraine in one package. Republican House Foreign Affairs Chairman Mike McCaul suggested the chamber could move a package with aid for Israel, Ukraine and Taiwan.

Rep. Kelly Armstrong threw cold water on that idea Tuesday, telling reporters that tying Israeli aid to Ukraine funding would be a "huge problem in the Republican conference."

"I support the United States role in the Ukraine, provided we know what the metrics are, there's an accounting for it, and we actually know what our vision is," Armstrong said. "We should have a real adult conversation about what this looks like moving forward. And if you try and jam it with Israeli money, when there is absolute unified support on that, that is a really big mistake."

Darkhorse candidate?

Rep. Ken Buck, one of the eight Republicans who voted with Democrats to oust McCarthy, said he was "not thrilled" with either candidate after the forum Tuesday evening. The Colorado Republican said he was looking for more specific plans on spending levels and other pressing issues.

"I do think there's a very strong possibility that we go with somebody that's not in contention right now," Buck said. "Neither one of them wanted to offend anybody today, so they were very vague on all their answers."

Cammack, a close ally of McCarthy, also left the door open for a new candidate to emerge if Scalise and Jordan reach a stalemate.

Cammack said she is undecided on who she will support, but added that she doesn't think either Scalise or Jordan has enough votes to get across the finish line.

"I know that there is a way that we can get to 218 [votes]. I'm hopeful that it is with one of these two gentlemen," she said. "But if the conference just can't quite get there because of whatever reason we have, quite frankly, we owe it to the American people. We owe it to our constituents to go back to the drawing board and put someone forward who can."

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Lexie Schapitl is a production assistant with NPR's Washington Desk, where she produces radio pieces and digital content. She also reports from the field and assists with production of the NPR Politics Podcast.