Days away from selecting a new speaker of the House, Republicans are locked in an increasingly personal battle for power, as former allies snipe at one another even as they promise to reform their fractured party — and institution.
California Rep. Kevin McCarthy is facing a new challenge from his former ally Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who is criticizing the majority leader in sharp terms. Chaffetz says McCarthy can’t get the 218 votes on the floor needed to become speaker, while McCarthy allies privately bash the Utah Republican as woefully unprepared to lead the House Republican Conference.
At the same time, McCarthy is privately planning for a more inclusive leadership structure that incorporates more input from all groups within the conference, including the House Freedom Caucus.
But meanwhile, in a nod to the ongoing war for control of the House GOP, Speaker John Boehner is considering delaying the election for majority leader and whip, a blow to Reps. Steve Scalise (La.) and Tom Price (Ga.), but a boon to conservatives who are looking to run a candidate against the pair of Southerners. It would also aid members seeking to change the Republican Conference rules to force candidates to resign other leadership posts and chairmanships while they run for new posts. Those changes would be debated before the election.
For now, the closed, secret ballot Republican leadership elections are officially scheduled for Thursday. And the race for speaker and House majority leader are far from settled.
Mollifying the loud conservative faction within the Republican Conference is the overwhelming theme of this marathon election. McCarthy, the front-runner for speaker, has begun to devise plans to decentralize power away from the leadership. The 50-year old California Republican has reached out to groups like the Freedom Caucus to institute a weekly gathering of leaders of the various House caucuses to devise the party’s legislative strategy, according to multiple sources familiar with the plans.
The Freedom Caucus, led by GOP Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, would have a seat at the table, as would the moderate Tuesday Group and the conservative Republican Study Committee, among other GOP groups. This regular confab would either come as an additional meeting of House Republican leadership, or a discussion between the group leaders and McCarthy. It’s a clear attempt to give the party’s warring factions more say over governing — and is in line with McCarthy’s style.
Furthermore, the Freedom Caucus has been pushing for more representation on the elite House Republican Steering Committee; additional slots on prime committees like Energy and Commerce, Ways and Means and Financial Services; and support from the National Republican Congressional Committee.
McCarthy is working to address their concerns, but these kinds of seismic changes require the support of the majority of the conference. A large swath of the GOP membership does not want to hand out “goodies,” as one source put it, to trouble-making lawmakers who have caused headaches for the party, and helped topple Boehner.
McCarthy’s allies believe he has the speaker election wrapped up and will easily win the party’s nomination to replace Boehner in one ballot on Thursday — and the floor vote to become the 54th speaker later this month.
Yet while the California Republican’s ascent is likely, it’s far from certain. He faces Florida Rep. Daniel Webster — a definite long shot — and Chaffetz.
While Republicans brushed Webster off, the bid from Chaffetz is raising some eyebrows. Few Republicans think Chaffetz, the Oversight and Government Reform chairman, can win the speakership, but his unfiltered criticism of McCarthy is somewhat unusual. In a letter to colleagues Sunday morning, Chaffetz said there are “already more than 50 Republicans who have indicated they cannot or will not vote for a current member of our leadership team to be the speaker.”
“Given that reality, uniting behind a candidate that can get to the 218 votes necessary to win the Speakership is critically important,” Chaffetz said. “I am confident I can bridge this divide and work effectively together with all members of our conference.”
McCarthy allies doubt Chaffetz’s math, and question his motives. Privately, they call the Utah Republican disloyal to McCarthy. Chaffetz and McCarthy were very close friends. Chaffetz even traveled to Bakersfield, California, in May 2015 to speak at McCarthy’s election kickoff event.
Chaffetz is trying to capitalize on the unease with McCarthy’s communication skills. In a widely criticized TV interview last week, McCarthy seemed to say the GOP leadership created a committee to investigate the Benghazi terrorist attacks to politically damage Hillary Clinton. That led to a huge backlash against McCarthy and he was forced to sit for another interview to try to clarify the remarks.
“We need a speaker who speaks,” Chaffetz told POLITICO in an interview on Saturday. “We lose the communication war time and time again, and I think the conference wants a proactive communicator.”
Chaffetz is branding himself as someone able to “bridge the divide” between the party’s conservative and moderate wings. On “Fox News Sunday,” Chaffetz told Chris Wallace that he has been recruited to run for speaker, but declined to say who exactly asked him to get into the race. Asked if he would shut down the government to defund Planned Parenthood, a move that some party firebrands have endorsed, Chaffetz seemed confused.
“Well, look, we’re going to have that discussion internally,” Chaffetz said on the Fox show. “We’re — my job is to help put a bill on the president’s desk. The president’s solution is to just borrow more money from China? That’s not a solution. I want to solve this problem.”
The move is not without risk for Chaffetz. He could lose his chairmanship of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland is pushing to change House GOP rules to force committee chairs and members of leadership to resign their posts if they choose to run for a new position. Scalise (La.) would have to abandon the whip position to run for majority leader, and Price (Ga.) would be forced to give up the Budget Committee gavel to continue his bid for the No. 2 slot in GOP leadership. Chaffetz, also, would have to give up his chairmanship to challenge McCarthy.
Scalise and Price, meanwhile, are still battling for majority leader, putting in long hours in an attempt to shore up votes. Scalise’s staff burned the midnight oil on Friday night, well after many lawmakers were back in their district. Insiders give the advantage to Scalise, but conservatives are hoping to block the Louisiana Republican’s ascent. They have been searching for a candidate to run against the pair, and have been unsuccessful thus far. But if Boehner were to delay the election, it could give conservatives another several weeks to lure a candidate in the race. Scalise, meanwhile, told supporters on a call Sunday evening that he has locked up a majority of the House Republican Conference to ensure he will be the next majority leader.
Boehner’s office officially says “all leadership elections remain on Thursday,” but sources familiar with the speaker’s office say they are considering a delay. It would benefit McCarthy tremendously. In that situation, McCarthy would likely ascend to speaker, while Scalise and Price would be forced to continue their campaigns. Scalise’s office is not in favor of the delay.