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Who could be speaker, if not Kevin McCarthy

The Post’s JM Rieger breaks down how a narrow Republican House majority could deliver or block the House speakership from Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

What’s clear is that Kevin McCarthy’s math for becoming speaker is looking quite difficult. What’s less clear is who could fill the vacuum and take over if McCarthy (R-Calif.) can’t get the votes.

Five House Republicans have come out firmly against the House minority leader — a number that could be enough to defeat his candidacy in the narrowly GOP-controlled House. But there’s been very little in the way of putting forward an alternative. Part of that could be they simply don’t know who it is, while part of it could be that they want to avoid drawing attention to the would-be usurper ahead of the Jan. 3 vote.

“As you might imagine, those candidates are going to be very hesitant or reluctant to be in any way public,” Rep. Bob Good (R-Va.), who opposes McCarthy’s speaker bid, told CNN.

A potential McCarthy holdout, Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.), added: “No one has got a clear vote that will get you there. And so we’re having a conversation about what it takes.”

But the holdouts are starting to drop some hints. And with a month to go before the Jan. 3 vote for speaker, it’s worth running down some of the names being floated.

Steve Scalise

The No. 2 House Republican is the most obvious and readily available stand-in if McCarthy can’t get there. He’s a little more aligned with the party’s conservative wing, and he passed on challenging McCarthy to be the GOP’s official nominee for speaker. That’s something that could earn Scalise (R-La.) some goodwill from McCarthy loyalists — whose votes will be as crucial as the House Freedom Caucus’s, after all, and who are balking at entertaining any McCarthy alternatives — if the party needs someone else.

But some of the resistance to McCarthy stems not just from who McCarthy is, but from the existing leadership’s unwillingness to change House rules to empower rank-and-file members. And Scalise is part of that leadership.

It’s logical to think there could be at least a few holdouts on him, too, and the winner simply can’t afford many. (More on how the process works here.) If all House members vote and nobody votes present, the winner would need the votes of all but four House Republicans. Maybe it’s easier for Scalise to get there if McCarthy falters, but it’s hardly assured.

Lee Zeldin

This is an increasingly intriguing possibility.

One of the Never-McCarthy Republicans, Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.), on Thursday indicated he and his fellow holdouts are zeroing in on a nonmember as their alternative pick (one needn’t actually be in the House to serve as speaker). “It will be apparent in the coming weeks who that person will be,” Norman said. “I will tell you, it will be interesting if everything plays out.”

But who could that even be? Never-McCarthy Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) has floated outgoing Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), among others. And House Freedom Caucus member Rep. Ben Cline (R-Va.) effusively praised Zeldin on Friday, too — while later clarifying that he wasn’t supporting him for speaker.

Zeldin ran a strong, albeit losing, campaign for New York governor this year (he lost by just six points), and Cline argued the GOP owed its narrow House majority in large part to how Zeldin helped Republicans win in some key New York races. “This is the Lee Zeldin majority,” Cline told radio host John Fredericks. “Because Zeldin has delivered these New York seats for Republicans in Biden districts.”

When the radio host suggested Cline might be putting Zeldin forward as a McCarthy alternative, Cline didn’t exactly downplay it. He echoed Norman’s comment that the speaker need not be a House member and added: “Lee Zeldin would be a great leader, whatever role he plays. … We need somebody articulating that positive agenda for conservatives, standing up and being a fighter, and Lee Zeldin can do that as well as anybody.”

In a follow-up phone call with The Washington Post, Cline said, “I wanted to clarify that I’m not supporting Lee Zeldin.”

Asked whether he would back McCarthy, Cline responded, “I am part of the Freedom Caucus, which is part of the negotiations with Kevin McCarthy. … I am not considering alternatives at this point.”

Zeldin is also eyeing a potential challenge to Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel. But McDaniel has released a letter suggesting a majority of RNC members back her.

The last time the GOP passed over McCarthy for speaker was in 2015. The party was ultimately able to convince Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) to step forward as a unity candidate — perhaps the one guy who could actually get the votes. Zeldin would be an unconventional pick, given no non-House member has ever been speaker, and he hasn’t shown any interest. But he might be the type who could provide that kind of unity across different parts of the party, and he’s apparently not ready to fade away.

A Fred Upton type

This is the left-field option — somewhat literally.

McCarthy and his allies have floated a scenario in which, if he can’t get enough voters and the GOP struggles to find someone who can, Democrats could join with a handful of more moderate Republicans to elect the speaker. “If we play games on the floor, the Democrats could end up picking who the speaker is,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy ally Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.) has also been talking about this quite a bit. “And if they refuse to compromise … we’ll work with Democrats to put in an agreeable Republican,” Bacon said this week. “We’re tired of getting pushed around.”

That would be a calamity for the GOP, and it’s much more likely Republicans would ultimately unite behind McCarthy than let it get to that point. McCarthy and his allies have reason to float it because it argues for supporting him, and there’s plenty of reason to believe it’s a bluff.

But if the holdouts truly won’t budge? Who knows?

In that scenario, the most likely pick would seem to be a more moderate, establishment-oriented Republican. Exactly who that might be isn’t at all apparent, but Bacon now says some Democrats have floated a candidate like outgoing Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

Upton is a well-regarded conservative who broke with his party to impeach Donald Trump after Jan. 6, 2021. Picking him would surely inflame Trump, but maybe there would be enough House Republicans who would view it as a chance to turn the page on the Trump era.

Some McCarthy allies have suggested such a process could result in outgoing Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming becoming speaker, but that seems even more unlikely than someone like Upton.

Again, it’s all very unlikely. And, again, floating this is very convenient for Bacon and McCarthy. The GOP also has all kinds of motivation to ultimately pull it together if they’re truly failing to find a candidate they themselves choose. But we also know certain members have shown they’re willing to hamstring the party to make a point.