House Majority Leader Steve Scalise
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise speaks to reporters after a closed-door vote meeting to nominate the US Speaker of the House candidate at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, October 11, 2023. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: Having won the nomination to be the next House speaker, Rep. Steve Scalise is heading straight into a familiar Republican problem — skeptical GOP colleagues are reluctant to give their support, denying him the majority vote needed to win the gavel.

On Thursday, the House will open at midday in anticipation of floor action to elect the speaker. But it’s requiring Scalise to peel off more than 100 votes mostly from his chief rival, Rep. Jim Jordan, the Judiciary Committee chairman favoured by hardliners as they dig in for a fight to replace Rep. Kevin McCarthy after his historic ouster from the job.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Scalise said after Wednesday’s internal party election.

A steady stream of some of the Republicans filed into Scalise’s office late into the evening, bringing their complaints, criticisms and demands as he worked to shore up support.

The scene is not fully different to the start of the year when McCarthy faced a similar backlash from a different group of far-right holdouts who ultimately gave their votes, then engineered his historic downfall.

Now entering week two without a speaker, and the House essentially unable to function, the pressure is on for Republicans to reverse course, reassert majority control and govern. The House was briefly gavelled in then closed Wednesday, an expected vote abandoned by nightfall.

“Steve’s going to have to talk to them all and see what their concerns are,” said McCarthy, who said he would be voting for Scalise.

What’s unclear is whether lawmakers who supported Jordan, the hard-liner backed by Donald Trump, will throw their support to Scalise in what is sure to be a close vote of the full House. Democrats are set to oppose the Republican nominee, easily nominating their leader, New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries.

Jordan said little after the 113-99 internal party ballot, only that the GOP majority “is divided.”

But Jordan did offer to give Scalise a nominating speech on the floor, in what would be a show of support during a vote. And Jordan himself plans to vote for Scalise, and is encouraging his colleagues to do the same, said a person familiar with the private talks and granted anonymity to discuss them.

A centrist leader, Rep. Don Bacon, said, “We do need to get a speaker in place so we can govern.”

“What we should have heard today after the vote count was: ‘I will heartily support Steve. Let’s get behind him,’” Bacon said. “We did not hear that.”

Floor vote

In a floor vote, Scalise would need to amass votes from almost all Republicans to overcome the Democratic opposition in the House that is narrowly split 221-212. Usually, the majority needed would be 218 votes, but there are currently two vacant seats, dropping the threshold to 217.

Many Republicans want to prevent the spectacle of a messy House floor fight like the gruelling January brawl when McCarthy became speaker.

Behind closed doors, the Republicans voted to set aside a proposed rules change that would have tried to ensure a majority vote before the nominee was presented for a full floor vote.

Without the rules change, the Republican lawmakers would be expected to agree to a majority-wins process. But several lawmakers announced they were not supporting Scalise.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, said she backed Jordan in the private ballot and would do so in the floor vote. Rep. Thomas Massie said he let Scalise know “he doesn’t have my vote on the floor.”

But Rep. Anna Paulina Luna emerged from a meeting with Scalise saying he had guaranteed she could “aggressively” pursue her committee role investigating President Joe Biden, and had secured her vote.

Americans are watching. One-quarter of Republicans say they approve of the decision by a small group of Republicans to remove McCarthy as speaker. Three in 10 Republicans believe it was a mistake, according to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

At the White House, presidential press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said, “We want to see the chaos be done with so that we can deliver for the American people.”

Neither Scalise nor Jordan was seen as the heir apparent to McCarthy, who was removed in a push by the far-right flank after the speaker led Congress to approve legislation that averted a government shutdown. The next deadline to fund the government is Nov. 17, again threatening federal closures.

All three men have been here before. In 2018, they were similarly vying for leadership, with McCarthy and Scalise extending the rivalry to this day.

Scalise was in line for the job this time after McCarthy’s ouster, but faced a challenge from Jordan, a founding member of the Freedom Caucus, who was viewed as a more hard-edged option.

Jordan is known for his close alliance with Trump, particularly when the then-president was working to overturn the results of the 2020 election, leading to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Trump backed Jordan’s bid for the gavel.

Several lawmakers, including Rep. Matt Gaetz, who engineered McCarthy’s ouster, said they would be willing to support either Scalise or Jordan.

“Long live Speaker Scalise,” Gaetz said after the vote.

McCarthy had briefly floated a possible comeback earlier this week but the eight hard-liners who helped engineer his removal showed no signs of budging. He told his colleagues later not to put his name forward for a nomination.

At the speaker’s office, where McCarthy’s name had still been out front since his ouster last week, crews were seen carting boxes and artwork out of the stately suite in the Capitol.

For now, Rep. Patrick McHenry, who was named as the speaker pro-tempore, is effectively in charge. He has shown little interest in expanding his power beyond the role he was assigned — an interim leader tasked with ensuring the election of the next speaker.

The role was created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to ensure the continuity of government. McHenry’s name was at the top of a list submitted by McCarthy when he became speaker in January.