Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) narrowly won a vote among House Republicans to be the party’s nominee for the next speaker of the House Wednesday — but whether he can lock down enough votes to actually get the job isn’t yet clear.
According to multiple reports, Scalise prevailed over Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) by a secret ballot vote of 113 to 99. But that’s just step one in the speaker election process. Step two, in which the speaker election is conducted publicly by the full House of Representatives, is more difficult.
To actually win the speakership, Scalise needs to win a majority on the House floor. That’s the hard part. Because of the GOP’s small majority — if all Democrats oppose a GOP speaker candidate, as is traditionally the case — it only takes a few GOP defections to sink him. This is why McCarthy struggled to win the speakership in the first place back in January and failed to hold on to it when his speakership was put to another vote last week.
There are currently 221 House Republicans, and a speaker candidate will need to win the votes of 217 of them on the floor. Since Scalise only got 113 votes in step one, that means he’ll have to win over a lot more Republicans.
There have been ideological divisions at play, with Jordan favored by hardliners on the right, endorsed by Trump, and feared by some more moderate members. But there are also personal divisions: Some McCarthy allies reportedly believe Scalise did not do enough to back McCarthy and are not eager to ease the Louisianan’s path to the speakership.
The question now is whether enough GOP hardliners will fall in line behind Scalise or whether they will make trouble for him on the House floor, as they did for McCarthy. For instance, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) reportedly said Wednesday after Scalise’s win that she will vote for Jordan on the floor.
So though Scalise and Jordan have been the main names in the running, speculation about other options continues. Some have wondered if Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), currently serving as speaker pro tempore, will be granted more powers if deadlock continues amid an international crisis, with some suggesting he could end up in the job permanently. Other Republicans have talked about nominating McCarthy again — though McCarthy, who initially left the possibility open, appeared to close the door to that Tuesday.
Why the GOP leadership election works differently from the House speaker election
The House speaker election unfolds in a two-step process. First is the party vote: The majority party meets by itself, behind closed doors, and votes by secret ballot for speaker nominees. Second is the full House vote: All members of the House vote, in public, and whoever gets a majority there becomes speaker.
Historically, that second step has been a formality. The House speaker election has effectively been settled by the internal party vote — the losing candidate would concede and the winner there would get the support they need for a majority on the House floor, keeping the decision “within the family,” so to speak.
That norm started to fray during the tumultuous years after Republicans’ 2010 takeover of the House. Throughout his tenure, Speaker John Boehner consistently held onto a solid majority of support among House Republicans. But a faction of hardline conservatives, either genuinely disenchanted with Boehner’s leadership or opportunistically pandering to the right-wing base, worked to force his ouster anyway.
The hardliners had no chance of defeating Boehner in internal votes of the Republican conference. But by 2015, they’d realized that they could withhold their support from Boehner on the floor — effectively joining with Democrats to deny Boehner the majority he needed to keep his job.
Then-Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC), Trump’s future White House chief of staff, exploited another little-used House rule that allowed any member to effectively force a no-confidence vote on the speaker: the motion to vacate the chair. Seeing the possibility of his ouster looming, Boehner preemptively resigned before he could be deposed. Then-House Ways and Means Committee chair Paul Ryan (R-WI) eventually emerged as the consensus candidate who could unite the GOP’s factions.
After Ryan’s retirement and Republicans’ loss of their House majority in 2018, McCarthy was in line to be the GOP’s minority leader — but he did face a challenge from Jordan. The minority leader, however, does not need to be elected by the whole House. So a closed-door, secret ballot vote of 159-43 was enough for McCarthy to win.
But when Republicans regained their majority in the 2022 midterms, they’d be electing a speaker again. The first step of the process — the closed-door party vote — went well for McCarthy. He defeated Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), 188 to 31.
Then, though, came the floor vote this January, in which 20 of McCarthy’s critics did not initially fall in line behind him. Since the GOP’s new majority was quite small, that proved enough to deny him the majority he needed for 14 ballots over four days.
In the end, McCarthy cut a deal with some of them — a deal that in the end set the stage for McCarthy’s downfall, when just eight defecting Republicans joined with Democrats to remove McCarthy from his post.
The current election
For this current speakership election, the new reality seems clear: both steps of the two-step process will be contested. To win step one, the party vote, it would take just 111 of 221 Republicans for a majority, if all of them were present and voting. (Scalise won by 113 to 99.)
But to win step two, the floor vote, 217 of 221 Republicans would be necessary, assuming no Democratic crossover votes.
So Scalise’s victory in the GOP’s internal vote this week should be better understood as something like a preview for the real fight to come.
Scalise is generally viewed as the more establishment-friendly figure, though he is quite conservative, and has his own controversial past — in 2002, he spoke at a convention for a group founded by white supremacist David Duke. (Scalise later claimed he was unaware the group, the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, was racist.)
One would think Scalise, who was McCarthy’s number two as House majority leader, would mean continuity with the existing leadership. Yet all year, the congressional gossip mill has claimed that McCarthy distrusted Scalise and was cutting him out of major decisions. Scalise also recently announced his diagnosis with blood cancer, leading some members to question whether he can do the job.
Jordan, meanwhile, has historically been among the hardest of House GOP hardliners — Boehner once called him “a legislative terrorist.” But Jordan has mostly been a team player working well with McCarthy this year, and hasn’t been a thorn in his side; for instance, he backed McCarthy’s debt ceiling deal. That’s because McCarthy has given Jordan a free hand in running the House Judiciary Committee, pursuing investigations aimed at providing red meat for the conservative base.
It’s difficult to discern how the House would function differently with either Scalise or Jordan as speaker. Perhaps Scalise would cut a more reasonable government funding deal than Jordan. Alternatively, perhaps Jordan would have an easier time convincing hardliners there’s no better deal possible. Both would inevitably feel compelled to cater to the right, but Jordan has a more aggressive history and rhetorical style.
Scalise prevailed in the conference vote, but only 113 Republicans voted for him. That’s a long way from the 217 he needs. Many will fall in line, but only a handful of defections could sink him. So the question is just how stubborn the holdout Republicans will prove to be. Jordan, too, will face a choice about whether he’ll drop out of the running and endorse Scalise, or continue to press his bid.
Update, October 11, 1:40 pm ET: This article was originally published on October 10. It has been updated to reflect Scalise’s victory in the GOP conference vote.