WASHINGTON (AP) — Nominated to be House speaker, Rep. Steve Scalise is heading straight into a familiar Republican problem: Skeptical GOP colleagues are reluctant to give their support, denying him the majority vote needed to win the gavel.
The House opened its Thursday session at midday in anticipation of floor action to elect a speaker, but quickly gaveled to a recess. Scalise must peel off more than 100 votes, mostly from those who backed his chief rival, Rep. Jim Jordan, the Judiciary Committee chairman favored by hard-liners, as lawmakers dig in for a fight to replace Rep. Kevin McCarthy after his historic ouster from the job. No votes were scheduled.
“Time is of the essence,” McCarthy said when he arrived at the Capitol.
Asked if it was still possible for Scalise, R-La., to find enough support, McCarthy said: “It’s possible — it’s a big hill, though.”
The House is entering its second week without a speaker and is essentially unable to function, so the pressure is on Republicans to reverse course, reassert majority control and govern.
Action is needed to fund the government or face the threat of a federal shutdown in a month. Lawmakers also want Congress to deliver a strong statement of support for Israel in the war with Hamas, but a bipartisan resolution has been sidelined by the stalemate in the House. The White House is expected to soon ask for money for Israel, Ukraine and the backfill of the U.S. weapons stockpile.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Scalise said after Wednesday’s private balloting by Republicans when he fell short of expectations.
A steady stream of some of the more hard-line Republicans filed into Scalise’s office late into the evening, bringing their complaints, criticisms and demands as he worked to shore up support.
The situation is not fully different from the start of the year, when McCarthy faced a similar backlash from a different group of far-right holdouts who ultimately gave their votes to elect him speaker, then engineered his historic downfall.
But the math this time is even more daunting. Scalise, who is seen by some colleagues as hero for having survived a 2017 shooting on lawmakers at a congressional baseball game practice, won the closed-door Republican vote 113-99. But Scalise now needs 217 votes to reach a majority that likely will be needed in a floor battle with Democrats.
The chamber is narrowly split 221-212, meaning Scalise can lose just a few Republicans in the face of opposition from Democrats who will most certainly back their own leader, New York Rep, Hakeem Jeffries.
McCarthy, R-Calif., noted that Scalise, a longtime rival, had indicated he would have 150 votes behind closed doors, but missed that mark. At midday, GOP lawmakers convened another private meeting.
Jordan, a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus who was backed by Donald Trump in the speaker’s race, said he did not plan to continue running for the leadership position.
“We need to come together and support Steve,” Jordan told reporters before the closed session.
It was the most vocal endorsement yet from Jordan who had earlier offered to give his rival a nominating speech on the floor, and privately was telling lawmakers he would vote Scalise is encouraging his colleagues to do the same.
But it was unclear whether enough whether lawmakers who backed Jordan will throw their support to Scalise. Handfuls of hard-liners announced they were sticking with Jordan, McCarthy or someone other than Scalise.
Veteran lawmakers said Scalise was not deal-making, as McCarthy did, to win votes.
Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, reaffirmed his support for Trump as speaker; the position does not need to go to a member of Congress.
Trump is expected to take a hands-off approach to the internal GOP fight now that Scalise, rather than his choice of Jordan, is the nominee, according to one person familiar with Trump’s thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Trump, the front-runner to 2024 GOP presidential nomination, repeatedly discussed Scalise’s health during a radio interview that aired Thursday.
Scalise has been diagnosed with a form of blood cancer known as multiple myeloma and is being treated.
“Well, I like Steve. I like both of them very much. But the problem, you know, Steve is a man that is in serious trouble, from the standpoint of his cancer,” Trump said on Fox News host Brian Kilmeade’s radio show.
“I think it’s going to be very hard, maybe in either case, for somebody to get,” Trump said. “And then you end up in one of these crazy stalemates. It’s a very interesting situation.”
Many Republicans want to prevent the spectacle of a messy House floor fight like the grueling January brawl when McCarthy became speaker. Usually, the majority needed would be 218 votes, but there are currently two vacant seats, dropping the threshold to 217 — and absences heading toward the weekend would drop the majority bar even lower.
Exasperated Democrats, who have been watching and waiting for the Republican majority to recover from McCarthy’s ouster, urged them to figure it out.
“The House Republicans need to end the GOP Civil War, now,” Jeffries said.
“The House Democrats have continued to make clear that we are ready, willing and able to find a bipartisan path forward,” he said, urging that the House reopen and change GOP-led rules that allowed a single lawmaker to put in motion the process to remove the speaker. “But we need traditional Republicans break from the extremists and partner with us.”
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in New York and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.