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Steve Scalise

Scalise’s epic struggle to become speaker

House Republicans — Welcome to Kevin McCarthy Part Deux. But worse. Maybe way worse.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise’s quest for the speakership — his seemingly impossible bid to turn 107 votes in his favor — has shades of the same Sisyphean task that McCarthy faced over the last nine months. Only the stakes this time are higher, the time frame is shorter, the opposition is larger and the House Republican Conference is angrier.

Let’s start here: Scalise apparently is trying to grind his way to 217. After winning the GOP speaker nomination on Wednesday — barely — Scalise dispatched a wave of surrogates to call and lobby members who had been backing Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio). Scalise took meetings last night with holdouts and no votes, trying to understand their opposition and how he could flip them.

Scalise’s gamble appears to be this — once he became the party’s nominee for speaker, Republicans would fall in line behind him. But that’s simply not happening.

Scalise’s fellow Republican leaders believe he should be afforded the time to try to win over colleagues. Yet the window for Scalise is very narrow, perhaps just a few days, to show that he can get to 217.

There are no GOP conference meetings scheduled, and no word on whether Scalise wants to risk a roll-call vote on the floor. The House is coming into session at noon, but nothing is clear after that.

Scalise has had some success. For instance, Scalise won over Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-Fla.), a Jordan backer. Her priorities — impeaching President Joe Biden, subpoenaing Hunter Biden and defunding special counsel Jack Smith, who is overseeing federal criminal cases against former President Donald Trump.

Asked whether Scalise promised a vote on these huge issues — something swing-district Republicans would really want to know — Luna responded: “What I will say is that Steve Scalise … is definitely someone the Biden administration should not be playing games with.”

The high stakes. The House has been paralyzed for two weeks as Israel — the United States’ top ally in the Middle East — is in the middle of an existential war and needs congressional support.

Government funding runs out in 36 days and House Republicans are trapped in a bitter fight over who’s to blame for their current debacle.

The numbers. Scalise wiggled his way into the House Republican nomination for speaker, topping Jordan 113-99. In reality, the vote was 110-100. Scalise had the support of the three delegates from U.S. territories who can’t vote for speaker on the House floor. And Rep. Cory Mills (R-Fla.), a Jordan supporter, didn’t vote because he was in Israel.

So in order to win the speakership, Scalise has to increase his vote total by 107.

OK, the real hard-core “Never Scalise” vote is probably 20 to 30 members, although it’s hard to estimate. Scalise can only afford to lose four votes on the floor.

Just consider this: Before McCarthy won a 15-round marathon floor vote in January, he garnered 188 votes in the conference against Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) — a decidedly weaker opponent than Jordan.

The nos. A huge block of members seems unwilling to consider a Scalise speakership. That opposition runs from moderates all the way to hardcore conservatives.

Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) went on Jake Tapper’s CNN show Wednesday to remind the public that Scalise once attended a white supremacist meeting when running for the legislature in Louisiana. Rep. Max Miller (R-Ohio) keeps saying he’ll only vote for Jordan on the floor.

Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.) has all but closed off the possibility of voting for Scalise, as have Reps. Carlos Gimènez (R-Fla.) and Lloyd Smucker (R-Pa.). Rep. Barry Moore (R-Ala.) was for Jordan, then Scalise, and now says he wants Jordan. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) said she’d rather Scalise focus on treating his multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer, than serve as speaker.

Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) said Scalise’s handling of his motion to change the conference rules was a “setback” for consideration of the Louisiana Republican as speaker. Indicted Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) posted late last night that he’s never heard from Scalise since being in Congress and won’t back him. Reps. Bob Good (R-Va.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) both said they would vote for Jordan on the floor.

Rep. Tom Massie (R-Ky.) said he assumed there were at least 20 conservatives lined up against Scalise.

Team Scalise — allies and aides of the Louisiana Republican — noted McCarthy had two months to get the votes for his speaker race. That’s true, of course. But Scalise doesn’t have that kind of time.

So what’s next? Everywhere you turn in the House Republican Conference, there’s serious concern — almost certainty — that Scalise can’t win a floor vote.

The question for Scalise is whether he’ll take his candidacy to the floor for a vote that he can’t win? Stay tuned.

The conversation has already picked up about fall-back options if Scalise can’t get to 217. The usual suspects are being bandied about — Speaker Pro Tem Patrick McHenry, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) or Majority Whip Tom Emmer.

How about McCarthy? He’s not interested in returning to the speakership, sources close to him say. On Wednesday night, McCarthy hosted some of his close allies in the speaker’s Capitol office suite for an informal get-together.

— Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan

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