Help wanted: What will it take to be next House speaker?

Help wanted: What will it take to be next House speaker?

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Many members expressed frustration that the political chaos was costing them precious time for dealing with critical matters on the agenda. Congress is racing to finish writing appropriations bills before the government runs out of money in mid-November. Other unresolved matters include Ukraine aid – which now appears to be in serious jeopardy – and the crisis at the southern border.

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And there’s no guarantee there will be a new speaker by next week, given the 15 rounds of voting Mr. McCarthy faced in January. Mr. McCarthy had to make a number of concessions to right-wing members in order to secure the gavel – including giving them the power to force a vote to remove him, setting the stage for what ultimately occurred this week. The next speaker will likely come under similar pressures.

When a combative posture may help

Some observers suggest uniting the Republican caucus may be more a matter of style than substance. A speaker who can mimic the rhetorical posture of former President Donald Trump, picking fights with Democrats and pushing for certain conservative priorities, might have more leeway to quietly compromise on other matters.

“I don’t think this is necessarily an ideological fight. I think this has more to do with personalities,” says John Feehery, who served as press secretary to former Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois. “With the right speaker, you can make it work.” 

There was a much wider ideological divide within the conference back in the early 2000s, notes Mr. Feehery, when House Republicans had an equally narrow majority. Some 30 to 40 Republican members back then favored abortion rights, he says, and others were in favor of raising taxes. Today, the GOP caucus is far more aligned on policy matters, but the personalities loom larger, which presents a different kind of challenge.

“There is a bigger disconnect between the base of the party and the congressional leaders than there ever has been,” says Mr. Feehery. “The base is much more populist, more anti-establishment, more willing to blow up the place. And the leaders are stuck having to lead.”

If not McCarthy, then who?

Thus far, three candidates are publicly vying for the speakership: House Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana; Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, chair of the House Judiciary Committee; and Oklahoma Rep. Kevin Hern, chair of the Republican Study Committee. All are pitching themselves as capable of doing what Mr. McCarthy could not. 

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Mr. Scalise, a popular conservative who gained national sympathy after being shot and badly wounded at a congressional baseball practice in 2017, has reportedly been eyeing the speaker’s job for years, and was floated as a possible candidate during the previous contest. As part of the current leadership structure, he starts with a built-in network and a base of support; Majority Whip Tom Emmer and a number of Southern Republicans have already voiced their support for a Speaker Scalise.  

“I have a proven track record of bringing together the diverse array of viewpoints within our Conference to build consensus where others thought it was impossible,” Mr. Scalise wrote in a “Dear colleague” letter announcing his run Wednesday afternoon. “This next chapter won’t be easy, but I know what it takes to fight and I am prepared for the battles that lie ahead.”

If Mr. Scalise is elected speaker, a ripple effect of promotions would occur. Mr. Emmer, currently the majority whip, has announced he would seek Mr. Scalise’s current job of majority leader, and Pennsylvania Republican Guy Reschenthaler, currently chief deputy whip, would seek Mr. Emmer’s role. 

“These elections are almost always decided internally by the relationships these members have with other members,” says Mr. Feehery. 

Still, some worry that Mr. Scalise, despite his conservative bona fides, might run into similar problems as did Mr. McCarthy in winning the gavel. The majority leader has also been undergoing cancer treatment, though he has assured members he is feeling well and has the stamina for the travel and long hours required for the speaker job. 

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Mr. Jordan, a onetime antagonist of Mr. McCarthy who later became a supporter, could complicate Mr. Scalise’s path. The former Freedom Caucus chair is a prominent Trump ally and was a leading choice among some of Mr. McCarthy’s far-right detractors in the January speakership fight, although on that occasion he declined to run. 

“I’ve had a lot of members reach out to us saying they think I’m the guy who can unite the conference,” Mr. Jordan told reporters while leaving a meeting of the Texas Republican delegation Wednesday, where all three candidates pitched themselves to members. “I think my politics are entirely consistent with where conservatives and Republicans are.”

Wild-card options

Other Republicans have expressed interest in the top job, such as Representative Hern, who chairs the largest group of House Republicans. It’s also possible the eventual new speaker could be someone not currently being discussed – a 2015-type situation in which members recruit a consensus candidate (like then-Rep. Paul Ryan) who reluctantly agrees to the job with serious stipulations. 

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One fanciful idea put forward by some members is for former President Trump to become speaker. In a tweet Wednesday, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene said Mr. Trump is the “only candidate” she is supporting, an idea echoed by Texas Rep. Troy Nehls and Florida Rep. Greg Steube. While the possibility may excite Trump supporters, such a ploy would almost certainly fail. Not to mention Rule 26 of the House Republican Conference Rules, which states that a member of Republican leadership “shall step aside” if indicted. When asked about the possibility outside a New York courtroom where he is on trial in a civil fraud case, Mr. Trump said his “sole focus” is becoming president again.

But the time for settling on a leader is limited, with government funding set to expire on Nov. 17.

Both Mr. McHenry and Mr. McCarthy have said they don’t plan to run for speaker. At a press conference Tuesday night, Mr. McCarthy was asked if he had any advice for whoever would succeed him.

He answered with a laugh: “Change the rules.”


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