US House Majority Leader Steve Scalise
US House Majority Leader Steve Scalise talks to the media before a House Republicans to hear from members running for U.S. Speaker of House in the Longworth House Office Building on October 11, 2023 in Washington, DC. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: House Republicans gathered late Tuesday in a last-ditch attempt to unify ahead of a vote to elect a new speaker, but deep divisions remain among the fractious group about who should lead the party and what their conference looks like moving forward.

The two candidates for speaker, Majority Leader Steve Scalise and Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, raced across the Capitol grounds to meet with various factions before delivering their final pitches to their Republican colleagues in a closed-door meeting and answering questions that exposed divisions that continue to plague the conference.

Several far-right and moderate Republicans left the two-hour candidate forum saying they remain noncommittal about either candidate - a clear indication that the process of coalescing around a leader could be lengthy and tense. Though Scalise and Jordan both pledged to support whoever wins the intra-conference vote before heading to the House floor, several lawmakers said they couldn’t promise the same.

“I can’t say that I’ll automatically join whoever pulls out the most of them at first vote, but I might,” said Rep. Dan Bishop, who was one of the eight Republicans who voted to remove Rep. Kevin McCarthy as speaker last week.

Both Jordan and Scalise pledged to unify the conference - an ambitious goal as they work to gather the support of 217 Republicans, many of whom are still fuming over McCarthy’s ouster. Some lawmakers remain in the “forever McCarthy” camp, even after he told the conference Tuesday afternoon not to nominate him for speaker when Republicans meet Wednesday morning to begin their secret-ballot elections.

“There’s two people running in there, and I’m not one of them,” McCarthy told reporters before entering the candidate forum. “I told them not to nominate me.”

To make his point clear, McCarthy stood up at the start of the forum to explicitly tell the conference not to vote for him. Several McCarthy allies said they sensed that some Republicans, who remained angry at the group who voted against McCarthy, were beginning to relent in their pursuit of retribution for the former speaker.

But some lawmakers are refusing to let it go.

Rep. Marcus J. Molinaro refused to back a candidate Tuesday and wouldn’t rule out backing McCarthy again. When asked if he’d join with others to prevent any other candidate from obtaining 217, Molinaro said, “I’m still considering my options.”

Molinaro is one of four New York Republicans, including Reps. Anthony D’Esposito, Andrew R. Garbarino and Nick LaLota, who have yet to say how they’ll vote, suggesting Tuesday that they want a speaker who will listen to their concerns as moderate Republicans. Those who only want to back McCarthy had planned to meet later Tuesday to discuss how to proceed ahead of the conference vote Wednesday.

US Rep. Jim Jordan
US Rep. Jim Jordan walks with staff members to a conference meeting with House Republicans October 11, 2023 in Washington, DC. Image Credit: AFP

Many Republicans worry that while Scalise or Jordan could win a simple majority of Republicans behind closed doors, they may not get support of the 217 lawmakers needed on the House floor to officially be installed as speaker.

“No one at this point is even remotely close to a majority,” Rep. Kat Cammack said. “So I think that we’re not just going to be here for a couple extra days. My money says weeks.”

To save themselves from the public embarrassment of failing to elect a speaker for several rounds, several Republicans have backed a change to GOP conference rules. Currently, the rules state that whoever gets 50 percent plus one of the vote - currently 113 including delegates from U.S. territories - in a secret ballot would win the party’s support for the speakership. The rule change would lift that threshold to 217, so that members could negotiate behind closed doors if no one is elected in the first several rounds of voting.

A group of Republicans, including Molinaro and Rep. Chip Roy, introduced an amendment to the internal Republican rules regarding speaker votes. The draft, obtained by The Washington Post, dictates that once a candidate gets a majority of the support, Republicans will vote in a secret ballot for two rounds in an effort to reach 217 votes. The third round would be an open roll call, meaning lawmakers would state their support publicly to the group and candidates would have a chance to target specific lawmakers. If no candidate reaches 217 votes after five rounds, new candidates can enter the race and the process starts over.

Scalise allies are against the proposal because they believe he can win a majority vote behind closed-doors and expect Jordan and his supporters to fall in line on the floor. Several Republicans leaving Tuesday’s meeting said that rule changes were not discussed. And some said they thought it would be best for Scalise and Jordan to run as a unity ticket, with whoever loses becoming majority leader, the second in the leadership line.

“I just believe they would make a great leadership team. I’m supporting Jim Jordan as of right now for speaker,” said Rep. Dan Meuser (R-Pa.) “But I want Steve Scalise in as majority leader. If it went the other way, in my view, just my view, that would be fine too.”

House Republicans are eager to elect a speaker because Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.) is limited in what he can do. Some Republicans who fear the speakership election could be prolonged suggested it is worth allowing McHenry to expand his role.

“I subscribe to the Patrick McHenry is the best person to carefully set those precedents,” Molinaro said. “But I do think that he is not limited and incapacitated. The whole concept here is that through careful decisions, he would establish what is and is not new precedent.”

Yet Republicans are hoping to avoid that, desperately hoping their colleagues can coalesce immediately behind whoever wins Wednesday, so they can begin passing long-term spending bills and, more urgently, working to aid Israel after Hamas-backed attacks left hundreds dead and prompted Israel to declare war.

Both Scalise and Jordan have said they would immediately put a resolution on the floor that would condemn Hamas’s action and express support for Israel. The broader question about aid remains in debate, though Jordan has said any aid sent to Israel should not be tied to aid sent to Ukraine.

The process to elect a speaker also has stopped the chamber from working to prevent a government shutdown that could occur in a little more than a month. Jordan and Scalise had to answer questions from members of the Republican Governance Group earlier in the day about the short-term funding that runs out on Nov. 17, leaving little time for Congress to pass the necessary 12 appropriations bills.