Republican lawmakers returning to Washington this week will do so without a House speaker, setting up a high-pressure situation to reach consensus on a candidate to wield the gavel – and the power to push through support for Israel.
While Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina serves as the acting speaker after the historic ouster of Rep. Kevin McCarthy last week, he has little power outside of recessing, adjourning or recognizing speaker nominations.
Two candidates have stepped up to fill the vacuum: House Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan of Ohio, who has the backing of former President Donald Trump. Oklahoma Rep. Kevin Hern announced Saturday that he had decided not to run.
Neither man starts the week with anywhere near the votes needed to claim the top spot, so here’s what to watch as the race unfolds:
Who are the candidates?
Jim Jordan: The powerful chair of the Judiciary Committee and a founder of the conservative Freedom Caucus secured Trump’s backing last week. (The former president’s intervention came after he expressed openness to temporarily serving in the role himself and had considered a visit to Capitol Hill to speak with Republicans, but he is no longer expected to make that trip.) Jordan has been a key figure in high-profile House GOP-led investigations.
Steve Scalise: As the No. 2 House Republican after the speaker, Scalise has been a prominent figure in the conference and had long been seen as either a potential successor, or rival, to McCarthy. Before he became majority leader, Scalise served as House GOP whip, a role focused on vote counting and ensuring support for key party priorities. The majority leader, his current role, oversees the House floor and schedules legislation for votes.
Scalise met virtually with the House Freedom Caucus on Sunday afternoon as he tries to lock down support ahead of a secret-ballot leadership election Wednesday to nominate a candidate for speaker, according to a person familiar with the matter. The move comes after Jordan met with the same group on Friday.
Both lawmakers have also been making a direct pitch to more centrist members, insisting they will make their reelection battles a priority and ensure more stability atop the badly divided conference, according to sources familiar with the conversations.
By CNN’s count, just over 60 members have publicly endorsed so far, with many more indicating they will keep their powder dry for now. Jordan racked up some notable endorsements over the weekend, mostly from the far-right faction.
The House GOP is scheduled to hold a candidate forum on Tuesday and an internal election on Wednesday, but it’s unclear when the floor vote will happen.
Monday at 6 p.m. ET: Republicans who left town will start returning for an in-person candidate debate and discussion during which Scalise and Jordan are expected to make their pitches to the conference.
Tuesday at 5 p.m. ET: The House GOP will hold an official candidate forum during which members will debate who is the best fit to take the gavel.
House Democrats will hold a similar forum on Tuesday to officially nominate their leader, Hakeem Jeffries, for speaker.
Wednesday 9 a.m. ET: House Republicans will hold an internal, secret-ballot election to officially select their nominee.
When will the official floor vote take place? This could happen as soon as Wednesday, but it will be up to whomever the GOP decides to officially nominate – starting the floor vote will be their call.
And this is where things get tricky. Remember, it took McCarthy 15 rounds of balloting to secure the necessary votes in January. Given the division in the GOP and the party’s slim majority, it will be a tall order for whoever the ultimate Republican nominee is to try to secure the requisite 217 votes quickly. (The nominee can only lose four GOP votes.)
The magic number of 217 – the majority of the current House – assumes every member is physically there and shows up to vote “aye” or “nay.” If they vote “present” or don’t show up, then the calculus changes.
There’s no sign yet that the GOP is changing its schedule to nominate a new speaker following surprise attacks by Hamas against Israel on Saturday.
But the emergency situation in Israel puts a spotlight on the state of paralysis – and uncharted legal territory – that the House is in without an elected speaker.
Lawmakers have been scrambling to determine, for example, whether McHenry can participate in a so-called Gang of Eight intelligence briefing on the attacks, a source familiar with the discussions told CNN on Saturday.
Biden administration officials briefed leadership of key House committees Sunday evening, multiple sources told CNN.
That briefing, provided by officials from the departments of State and Defense, included McHenry, as well as majority and minority leaders of national security committees and those on appropriations.
Jeffries, meanwhile, said Sunday that he had conversations with the White House and the National Security Council but has not yet received a briefing with the Gang of Eight – which includes top leaders and heads of the intelligence committees in both parties and both chambers.
McHenry has been clear with members, a source familiar tells CNN: He cannot bring any resolution or further funding to the floor in his current role.
Committees can still continue to operate, but McHenry is mostly responsible for overseeing the election of a new speaker, which means recessing, adjourning or recognizing nominations on the floor.
The chaos around what the House can and cannot do has sparked outcry from some GOP members, who are calling on their party to speed up their timeline for electing a new speaker.
“In light of today’s attacks, we should be called back to DC & vote on a Speaker ASAP,” GOP Rep. Brandon Williams of New York tweeted.
“This is why you don’t remove a Speaker mid-term without cause,” New York Rep. Michael Lawler wrote on social media.
If the speaker’s race drags on, House Republicans could try to vote to give McHenry more temporary powers.
And even without McHenry having power to bring nonbinding resolutions to the floor, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul indicated the chamber may look to pass a bipartisan resolution condemning Hamas anyway.
“We want to get that on the floor by unanimous consent, whether or not we have a speaker in place. Because I think we cannot wait,” McCaul, a Texas Republican, told CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday. “We have to get that message out as soon as possible.”