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Patrick McHenry

House Republicans are still a mess

House Republicans are entering a critical two-day stretch in their quest to elect a new speaker, and they’re mired in a state of total confusion.

Neither candidate — House Majority Leader Steve Scalise nor Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) — has anywhere near the requisite support to win a majority inside the Republican conference or on the House floor.

During a meeting Monday night in the basement of the Capitol, Republicans aired recriminations from last week’s vote to oust Kevin McCarthy as speaker while scoffing down a pungent barbecue dinner.

Three GOP lawmakers — Rep. John Duarte of California plus Reps. Carlos Giménez and John Rutherford of Florida — stood up during the meeting to vow that they’d only vote for McCarthy for the chamber’s top job. Rutherford even declared he’d vote for McCarthy on the House floor no matter who emerges as the party’s nominee for speaker.

McCarthy, who didn’t attend the session Monday night, has said he’s not a candidate, although he continues to leave the door open slightly to a possible return.

Republicans also directed their ire at the eight lawmakers who voted against McCarthy. Two of those lawmakers – Arizona Reps. Andy Biggs and Eli Crane – left the meeting early, declining to speak to reporters.

Members of the House GOP leadership and rank-and-file Republicans both agreed there’s no way that Scalise or Jordan could win a floor vote for speaker right now.

“This is a hard conference to lead,” said. Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), a Scalise backer. “There’s a lot of free agents in there.”

One lawmaker — Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), a Jordan supporter — told reporters he’s worried about Scalise’s health situation, saying “I don’t want somebody who’s going to deteriorate in the job.” Scalise has multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy. Scalise and his supporters insist he’s fine and would be able to handle the speaker’s duties.

At 5 p.m. today, House Republicans will repair to 1100 Longworth — the Ways and Means Committee room — to hear from Scalise and Jordan in a candidate forum. The internal party vote to select the party’s nominee for speaker is tentatively scheduled for Wednesday.

At this point, less than half of House Republicans have committed publicly to Scalise or Jordan. But Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), one of Scalise’s whips, said he’s feeling “really, really, really good” about the Louisiana Republican’s chances.

It’s also clear that House Republicans have a heightened sense of urgency about choosing a speaker in the wake of Hamas’ bloody terrorist rampage against Israel.

“The world is watching,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said. “They’re seeing a dysfunctional democracy. This is what the ayatollah wants. It’s what Chairman Xi, when he talks about … that democracy doesn’t work. We need to prove them wrong. And we need to get a speaker by Wednesday.”

Yet inside the House Republican meeting Monday, none of that urgency was evident. Neither Jordan nor Scalise said anything during the meeting, sitting patiently as their allies argued during the more than two-hour session.

Not only are the two candidates battling over the speakership, but they’re locked in a proxy war over an effort to change the party’s rules. Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) and Chip Roy (R-Texas) want to alter GOP conference rules to force the nominee for speaker to garner 217 GOP votes among Republicans before heading to the floor for a vote.

Jordan and his supporters are generally in favor of the rule change, many of them understanding that Scalise will struggle to get the requisite votes to win the speaker vote and the Ohio Republican can try to eat away at his support.

Scalise and his supporters are against the proposal. Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.), Scalise’s former chief deputy whip, compared the effort to the Georgia secretary of state changing election laws before the 2020 election.

“It’s unfair to change it,” Ferguson insisted in the private meeting.

There’s also some confusion over the threshold for approving this potential rules change. Depending on how the proposal is drafted — and it’s still a work in progress — it could require a majority vote or two-thirds to implement. A majority vote is more likely, but even members of leadership are uncertain.

Two figures played outsized roles in Monday’s session — McCarthy and his close ally Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, the current speaker pro tem.

McHenry was diplomatic during the gathering. He spoke briefly about the proposal to change the threshold for electing a speaker, noting that more than 100 Republicans supported the Fitzpatrick-Roy plan, according to members. McHenry and Scalise have had a rough relationship over the last few years. McHenry was once Scalise’s deputy, but he’s drifted toward the McCarthy camp in recent years.

Yet it’s exceedingly clear that the House GOP is getting anxious about being paralyzed once again.

Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio), whose moderate RG2 group will host both Jordan and Scalise today, suggested in an interview that Republicans should somehow change the rules to empower McHenry as speaker to ensure that Israel and America’s other allies get the help they need.

“I think with what’s taking place in the world, it’s important that we take time to empower the present speaker who’s there under rules that were never really officially developed,” Joyce said. “And if there is a problem the next two days, then give him the power to at least continue to move this country forward.”

Scalise and Jordan are both expected to meet with the Florida delegation today. The Sunshine State has 20 GOP votes.

— Jake Sherman, John Bresnahan, Max Cohen and Mica Soellner

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