Battle to elect a House speaker back to square one amid death threats and back-stabbing

Nine lawmakers are aspiring to the position amid the division and chaos of the Republican Party

US House of Representatives
The House of Representatives, during last Friday's session, in which Jim Jordan's candidacy was defeated for the third time.MICHAEL REYNOLDS (EFE)
Miguel Jiménez

“No person having received a majority of the whole number of votes cast by surname, a speaker has not been elected.” That litany, which had not sounded in the U.S. House of Representatives for more than a century, has been heard 17 times this year. The first 14 came in January, before Kevin McCarthy was finally elected speaker on the 15th ballot. The other three last week, when Republicans unsuccessfully nominated extremist Jim Jordan to succeed the ousted McCarthy. After death threats (real), backstabbing (figurative), and three consecutive defeats, Jordan’s colleagues have withdrawn their nomination and the process is back to square one, with the House paralyzed and plunged into chaos by divisions in the Republican Party. At least nine lawmakers now aspire to the post of speaker, but none has a guaranteed consensus within their caucus.

The permanent drama in which the Republicans find themselves lays bare a deeply divided parliamentary group and a poisoned atmosphere. The radical wing of the party, which made McCarthy sweat ink for his election and which promoted the motion to vacate against him, has been on the verge of coming out triumphant in its blackmail. Its candidate, Jordan, received the simultaneous endorsement of Donald Trump and McCarthy himself, the two people with the greatest leadership within the GOP. But unexpectedly, it was the moderate lawmakers, accustomed to consensus and agreement, who decided to stand up and not support his candidacy.

The radicals made a miscalculation. They thought that pressure from Trump, right-wing media figures and constituents (whom they encouraged to call the offices of the dissident moderates), would be enough to twist their arms. However, these pressure tactics got out of hand and ended up backfiring. One congressman’s wife received threatening phone calls. Iowa Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks reported being subjected to “credible death threats and a barrage of threatening calls.” “One thing I cannot stomach, or support, is a bully,” she said in a statement. Florida Congressman Mario Diaz Balart also indicated that he would not bow to pressure.

Among moderate Republicans, there was uneasiness about the way Jordan’s candidacy had made headway. In a first internal caucus vote to find McCarthy’s successor, the winner was Steve Scalise, but Jordan’s supporters made it clear — in what moderates considered a stab in the back — that they would not bow to the majority decision and would block his nomination, so he threw in the towel.

Jordan was willing to have his election voted on again and again, in the assumption that the moderates would eventually cave in the face of the prospect of a gridlocked Congress. However, after his third defeat, the Republican caucus met to decide whether his candidacy should be retained or withdrawn for successive votes. In a secret ballot, the decision was made to withdraw his candidacy.

The Republicans thus find themselves back at square one, only with McCarthy defenestrated and Scalise and Jordan ruled out. The hard-right wing has also rejected the option of granting temporary powers to the interim speaker, Patrick McHenry, to unblock the functioning of the House among urgent pending tasks including the approval of budgetary laws and new aid packages to Ukraine and Israel.

There is, therefore, no easy way out of the crisis, even though Tuesday will mark three weeks since McCarthy’s ouster. A good number of lawmakers have shown their willingness to move the ball forward. Most of them, moreover, have pledged to support the winner of the internal vote, an initiative tabled by Nebraska Congressman Mike Flood. But the radicals retain their blocking minority and there is no guarantee that they will not exercise it, particularly after the defeats of their chosen candidate.

Republicans to meet Monday

The Republicans will meet Monday behind closed doors to hear the pitches of the various aspirants. They are expected to vote on a nominee Tuesday but the tricky part will come, once again, when it reaches the floor, where the narrow Republican majority (221 to 212) only allows for four members of their own party to dissent in order to achieve the 217 votes required, if all 433 representatives come to the floor (there are currently two vacancies, one from each party).

None of the options on the table augurs unity. McCarthy is now backing Tom Emmer, 62, of Minnesota, who was number three in the group behind the former speaker and Scalise. Emmer is “head and shoulders above all those others who want to run,” McCarthy said Sunday in an interview on NBC. “We need to get him elected this week and move on.” Emmer, however, does not have Trump’s support and it remains to be seen whether the radicals will back him, as he is one of only two candidates for the seat who voted to certify Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential victory. He has a long history within the party and is a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Another seeking his chance is Austin Scott, 53, a Georgia congressman who was defeated by Jordan on the last internal ballot, but managed to garner 81 votes. “I supported and voted for Rep. Jim Jordan to be the speaker of the House. Now that he has withdrawn, I am running again to be the speaker of the House,” he tweeted Friday. Without the extremist across the aisle, he believes he may have a chance to win within the caucus. However, he is the other candidate who supported recognizing Biden’s win in 2020 and, a McCarthy ally, he openly stood up to the hardliners so it is difficult to imagine they will allow his election.

Having turned the page on Jordan, the radicals are now looking to Byron Donalds — a member of the so-called Freedom Caucus, which groups together the most extreme members of the party and argues without foundation that Biden is an illegitimate president — as their candidate. Donalds, one of the few African-Americans in the Republican caucus, received the backing of the radicals in January when they rejected McCarthy’s appointment. He has not signed the pledge to support whoever wins on the internal ballot, which the radicals oppose, so they retain their veto power.

Jack Bergman, a 76-year-old Michigan congressman and a decorated retired lieutenant-general, is one of the candidates who have actively promoted the pledge to close ranks on the floor with whoever wins in the caucus’ internal vote. “My hat is in the ring, and I feel confident I can win the votes where others could not. I have no special interests to serve; I’m only in this to do what’s best for our nation and to steady the ship for the 118th Congress,” Bergman tweeted in announcing his candidacy.

Kevin Hern, 61, a businessman who struck it rich with McDonald’s franchises in Oklahoma, the state for which he is a representative, appeared to be a possible candidate after McCarthy’s termination, but he stepped back in the face of Scalise and Jordan. Now, he has announced his candidacy with a call for unity and a new style of leadership.

Another who has cast his lot is Texas Congressman Pete Sessions, 68: “I am running for speaker of the House because I know what it will take to move the Republican Party forward. I was chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee when we won 63 seats in the House and had our largest victory since the Republican Revolution of 1994,″ he tweeted Saturday. Sessions is a member of the Main Street Caucus, the Republicans’ core faction.

Evangelical Christian and election denialist Mike Johnson, 51, who represents Louisiana, is another alternative for the ultraconservatives, but it seems unlikely that he can prevail within his own group. Gary Palmer, a 69-year-old congressman from Alabama, is another of those who wanted to invalidate the results of the 2020 presidential election in four states. Dan Meuser, 59, also wanted to invalidate the results in five states, including Pennsylvania, which he represents. “It’s time to get back to work,” he said in announcing his candidacy. That’s about the only thing everyone does agree on.

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