Majority Leader Steve Scalise is scrambling to salvage his House speaker bid in the face of an entrenched opposition inside his party that’s left the chamber paralyzed and without a path forward to electing a speaker.
House Republicans met behind closed-doors for more than two hours Thursday, where Scalise urged his detractors to explain their opposition to him in front of the conference. After the meeting ended, Scalise planned to huddle with those opposed to him in his office, along with the leaders of the various Republican conferences.
But the opposition to Scalise as the next speaker only grew Thursday, with roughly 20 Republicans publicly opposing him. Scalise needs a majority of the House to be elected speaker, meaning he can only afford to lose four votes.
The deadlock is leading to intensifying frustration as the House GOP looks no closer to coalescing around a speaker candidate. Several Republicans described Thursday’s meeting as a venting session that wasn’t terribly productive. Many said it didn’t feel like anyone could actually get to the 217 votes needed.
“This is petty, and I’m getting freaking tired of it,” said Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, a New York Republican. “We’re all in there sharing our feelings, but the reality is we still need to get to 217.”
Scalise’s math problem became apparent quickly after he won the GOP conference vote to be speaker over Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, 113-99. Several of the Jordan supporters said immediately they would not vote for Scalise on the floor, and the number has only ballooned in the day since.
“I’m not on the whip team, but I can count votes and there’s a pretty big gap right now,” said Rep. Andy Ogles of Tennessee, one of the Republicans who said he would vote for Jordan.
Leaving Thursday’s conference meeting, Scalise said he would be meeting with smaller groups in the conference to try to resolve the holdouts before going to the floor for a vote.
“I’m not cutting any deals. I want to meet in front of all our members, answer every question, and just continue to work through to unite and bring our conference together and address issues as they come up,” Scalise said. “I took every question that everybody brought, and we’re going to continue to go through this process. As we grow our support, work towards getting this resolved and getting the House back up and running.”
Republican lawmakers were told to expect another conference meeting in the evening, and many said it was unlikely that a floor vote for speaker would be held Thursday.
Republicans are worried that Scalise is facing grim prospects of becoming speaker, an impasse that threatens to prolong the GOP’s leadership crisis that has left the House paralyzed and unable to move on any legislation.
Late Wednesday, members of the conference were beginning to weigh how they would handle the potential collapse of his bid, with several GOP sources saying they believe they’d have to consider a new candidate who has yet to run for the speakership.
Scalise or any other Republican candidate needs 217 votes to win the speaker’s gavel, a majority of the entire House, which currently has two vacancies. That means Scalise could only afford to lose four Republicans if every member is voting. Democrats are expected to uniformly back House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries of New York.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas, who is expected to back Scalise, sharply criticized members saying that they won’t vote for Scalise.
“I think they should all resign their congressional seat unless they get 100% of their district to vote for them,” he told CNN.
Jordan said Thursday he wants Republicans to unite around Scalise. “I do and I’ve been clear about that since yesterday,” Jordan said.
But pressed on if he would rule out taking the job if Scalise can’t get there, Jordan didn’t give a clear answer. “I will nominate Steve on the floor and I hope we can unite around a speaker,” the Ohio Republican said.
Former President Donald Trump, who endorsed Jordan, was sour on Scalise’s speakership candidacy in a Fox News Radio interview, pointing to the House majority leader’s recent cancer diagnosis.
“I just don’t know how you can do the job when you have such a serious problem,” Trump said.
The opposition to Scalise inside his party has thrown into doubt how Republicans will get out of their speaker conundrum that’s left them simply unable to govern.
While there was some belief on Capitol Hill that the brutal assault on Israel over the weekend might prompt Republicans to quickly select a leader – House lawmakers were given a classified briefing on Israel on Wednesday before the conference vote for speaker – the deep divisions in the conference that led to Kevin McCarthy’s removal last week have now left the quest for a new speaker at a standstill.
As the number of holdouts has trended in the wrong direction, some House Republicans are weighing whether it is time to move onto other options as the pressure mounts to address pressing needs like the war in Israel and government funding.
Some lawmakers are suggesting they will need to put up a new candidate if Scalise can’t get there soon.
GOP Rep. Mark Green said that if Scalise can’t get the votes, then “somebody else needs to step up.”
Another idea that came up during the closed door conference meeting was whether Republicans should try to expand the powers of interim Speaker Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, so the House can pass legislation, like a resolution for Israel, multiple lawmakers told CNN.
But members stressed it was not a serious conversation at this point, but rather just something that’s being floated.
“That is an option that we could pursue” GOP Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas told reporters.
Separately, some House Democrats have started having preliminary conversations with some Republicans about who would be interested in working with them if Scalise drops out, one source familiar with the conversations told CNN.
One of the Republicans Democrats would be interested in is House Rules Chairman Tom Cole of Oklahoma, the source added. But no deal with Republicans would come for free, and Democrats have said they would need major concessions for any talks to become real.
Even the support Scalise has won over has proven fickle. On Wednesday, Rep. Anna Paulina Luna said after meeting with Scalise that she felt “comfortable” enough to support his speaker nomination, after he spoke to her about the Oversight Committee’s impeachment investigation into President Joe Biden.
But leaving Thursday’s meeting, Luna said she was no longer supporting Scalise. “As of right now we need someone who can unite the party and right now, there is no candidate that has 217,” the Florida Republican said.
While many of the Scalise holdouts say they’re backing Jordan, a number of Republicans don’t think that Jordan could be a viable alternative given that he lost to Scalise in the nominating contest, and some Republicans were irritated when he didn’t immediately close ranks behind Scalise.
“If Scalise were not to make it, the next person got less votes,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida said of Jordan. “And by the way, I think, more controversial. So that would not be a good thing for this place.”
Republican Rep. Erin Houchin of Indiana said she doesn’t know if “it will be Jordan or Scalise or even someone else at this point.”
“I think we’re in uncharted territory,” she said, “and it’s gonna be very hard to predict.”
This story and headline have been updated to include additional developments.