How wide open is the House speaker’s race? Enough that Rep. Kevin McCarthy wouldn’t even bat down the idea of taking back his old job on Monday.
“I’ll allow the conference to make whatever decision,” the ex-Republican leader told reporters after being asked at a press conference whether he might try to reclaim the gavel.
Republicans are set for a key candidate forum Tuesday night where would-be speakers will pitch themselves to colleagues. But McCarthy’s die-hard supporters fed talk of a comeback this weekend as it became apparent that neither of the two official contenders, Majority Leader Steve Scalise and Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan, had locked up enough support for a quick victory. McCarthy’s backers have argued that Republicans should rally around him now thanks to the escalating crisis in Israel, since Congress will be unable to move an aid package until a speaker is chosen.
One even suggested Democrats might be willing to help this time.
“We don’t need any Democrats to vote for it,” Rep. John Duarte, R-Calif. told Semafor on Monday. “We just need Debbie Wasserman Schultz to have a tea party and keep four or five of the Israeli-supporting Democrats either voting present or off the floor.” Voting present would allow McCarthy or another Republican to win with fewer than 217 votes. (Wasserman Schultz’s office did not return a request for comment.)
Republicans aren’t just struggling with who they’ll elect as speaker — they’re struggling with how to elect one, too. Some lawmakers want to require a candidate to win support from close to 217 House GOP members in order to receive the party’s nomination, giving them enough support to win the gavel without a messy floor fight. Currently, candidates need support from a simple majority of the conference to be nominated.
“We should have 217 members in conference vote for the Speaker nominee (instead of a simple majority of the conference) before we go to the floor,” Rep. Andy Harris, one of the signatories on a letter advocating the change, told Semafor in a statement. “This will speed the process along greatly.”
But during a closed-door meeting Monday, members were split on raising the threshold to nominate a speaker and on a motion to vacate to help keep them in place. Others have proposed swapping the entire Republican leadership and there’s a minority of folks who have an appetite to change the calendar so that members take summer recess weeks before the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.
Republicans hoped to hold a final vote on a speaker by Wednesday. But some members doubt they’ll reach a resolution that quickly. “Oh, I don’t think we’ll get a speaker this week,” Rep. Max Miller, R-Ohio, told reporters. “We’ve literally just had, I think, three individuals go up to the mic and say, ‘I’m only for Kevin McCarthy no matter what.’ So, I mean, the math is hard for us, but 217? I mean, how do you get it?”
Neither Rep. Steve Scalise nor Jim Jordan have anywhere near the 217 votes locked up currently, and I’m skeptical that they will get there easily. (CNN’s whip count currently has Jordan with 47 endorsements and Scalise with 23). But that doesn’t mean McCarthy is likely to get his chair back either — some members who helped oust him last week are already promising to oppose any comeback attempt. “I’m not voting for Kevin again. I voted for him 15 times,” Rep. Tim Burchett, R-Tenn. told reporters, referring to the marathon speaker election in January.
With that in mind, here are potential consensus candidates that members say are in the mix if they need another fallback option.
Tom Emmer: Even as he fell short of securing a comfortable majority, the current whip is credited for helping to flip the House, therefore making him somewhat of a favorite candidate among the 40 GOP freshmen who won in 2022. He’s also won support from the party’s right in the past: Reps. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz. and Ken Buck, R-Colo. who both voted to remove McCarthy, backed Emmer’s bid to become whip.
Patrick McHenry: He’s already serving as a speaker pro-tempore and chairs the House Finance Committee — which means ties to the donor world.
Cathy McMorris Rogers: A wild card and the chair of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee. She’s the only woman whose name is being floated.
Kevin Hern: The Republican Study Chair earned a lot of respect and political capital during the speaker’s race. His office said he spoke to roughly 200 members of Congress about his potential candidacy before deciding not to compete.
Room for Disagreement
Of course, there’s the rare possibility Republican members could recognize the gravity of this moment — a looming shutdown and the need to help allies abroad — and decide they need to put differences aside and unite behind a speaker sooner than they might otherwise. “The Israel attack will encourage the vast majority of the conference to get this over with sooner rather than later, so I think it’s more likely that we get either Scalise or Jordan,” one senior Republican aide told Semafor.