The battle for the future of the House Republican Conference is not about to end anytime soon.
Any chance of a quick and bloodless transition to a new slate of GOP leaders ended Monday when outgoing House Speaker John A. Boehner (Ohio) postponed elections for the party’s No. 2 and No. 3 posts for weeks pending the outcome of the speaker’s race — which itself remains in doubt.
Closed-door, secret-ballot elections for all three posts — to nominate a speaker ahead of a decisive floor vote of the entire House, and to select a majority leader and party whip — had been set for Thursday amid the widespread presumption that Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) would claim the speaker’s chair.
McCarthy remains the heavy favorite to win the speaker nomination vote Thursday, but he is facing questions over whether he can keep Republicans united ahead of the floor vote, which Boehner on Monday set for Oct. 29 — a day before he is to leave Congress.
In that vote, all House members, Republican and Democrat, cast ballots. If more than 29 of the 247 House Republicans abandon the party’s nominee, that candidate would be likely to fail to garner the necessary 218 votes to claim the speaker’s chair, throwing the race into multiple ballots for the first time since 1923.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (Utah), who on Sunday launched a long-shot challenge to McCarthy, told reporters Monday that while McCarthy would probably win the nomination Thursday, he would be unable to win over a bloc of as many as 50 conservative Republicans who are opposed to maintaining the status quo in a GOP political environment dominated by such outsiders as Donald Trump and Ben Carson.
“If we don’t inject new blood into the leadership team, our constituents are going to be irate, at best,” he said. “This is a national wave. It’s not something that was driven by Jason Chaffetz. I’m just smart enough to recognize it and try to get ahead of it.”
But it is not at all clear that Chaffetz, who says he would be a more effective communicator than McCarthy, is any better positioned to unite Republicans.
He declined to sketch his path to the speakership during a 45-minute question-and-answer session, saying only that there was a rising desire among House Republicans to find a leader who could satisfy both hard-line conservatives and centrists.
“I don’t have a formal whip count; I don’t have a formal whip team,” he said. “This is going to have to happen organically.”
Monday’s announcement delaying the down-ballot leadership races may help McCarthy build support among his colleagues by reducing the perception that there is going to be a lock-step promotion of the existing leadership ranks.
“The American people and, more importantly, the Republicans in this country are not going to be happy with just a shifting of seats,” said Rep. James B. Renacci (Ohio), who had called for the delay. “If we’re just switching seats, there has to be a very good argument for that, and I think those individuals who take those seats have to be able to show they’re going to do things different.”
The delay, which will give conservatives who oppose en masse promotions for current leaders more time to mount challenges, is a setback for Majority Whip Steve Scalise (La.), who told supporters Sunday that he had secured enough votes to replace McCarthy as majority leader, and for Chief Deputy Whip Patrick T. McHenry (N.C.), who made the same claim to supporters of his bid to succeed Scalise as whip.
“Our team is strong and growing, and we look forward to having all of these elections take place as soon as our conference is ready,” Scalise spokesman Chris Bond said.
The leadership unrest comes as high-stakes legislative deadlines continue to pile up. Transportation spending authority is set to expire Oct. 29, the federal debt ceiling will be reached in early November, and a stopgap appropriations measure expires Dec. 11, raising the possibility of a holiday-season government shutdown.
McCarthy, Chaffetz and a third speaker candidate, Rep. Daniel Webster (Fla.), will start making their cases directly to colleagues Tuesday evening at a members-only forum sponsored by hard-line conservative groups.
The candidates will likely be pressed to make specific commitments, said Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), a member of the House Freedom Caucus, one of the host groups.
“Generalities are for general elections and television ads,” he said. “Guys are going to have to explain their votes on Planned Parenthood. Guys are going to have to explain how they perceive us navigating the waters when it comes to raising the [budget] caps.”
Chaffetz told reporters Monday that he would not rule out a December shutdown, saying that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was “absolutely flat-out wrong” for doing so ahead of an Oct. 1 funding deadline. “I’m not giving up on anything there,” he said.
Renacci said he has a simple question for the next speaker: “What are we going to be doing different?” he said. “We have a speaker resigning midterm. We should take some reflection. Tell me what you’re going to do different.”