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The Republican House Speaker Doom Loop

The GOP can’t evade the structural realities that make it so hard to elect a speaker—and which will make it impossible for that new speaker to govern.

Al Drago/Getty Images
Ohio Representative Jim Jordan

For three years in the thirteenth century, there was no pope. The cardinals who gathered in the small Italian town of Viterbo after Clement IV’s death in 1268 could not agree on a successor. A group of French cardinals hoped to elect one of their own to lead the church, while the others feared France’s influence in the Italian peninsula. A deadlock ensued, until the people of Viterbo locked the cardinals into a church, cut their rations, and removed its roof.

Maybe someone should do that to the House of Representatives. The lower house of Congress is no closer to electing a new speaker since a renegade GOP faction ousted Kevin McCarthy earlier this month. If anything, it’s strayed even further away from that goal. Earlier this week, the House Republican caucus internally elected Majority Leader Steve Scalise as the party’s nominee for speaker. Then, unsurprisingly, everything fell apart.

“There are still some people that have their own agendas, and I was very clear: We have to have everybody put their agendas on the side and focus on what this country needs,” Scalise said on Thursday, while announcing his withdrawal from the speakership race. “This country is counting on us to come back together. This House of Representatives needs a speaker, and we need to open up the House again. But clearly, not everybody is there, and there [are] still schisms that have to get resolved.”

His withdrawal was sudden but hardly surprising. The math behind the House leadership race is simple and unyielding. There are 435 seats in the House, meaning any speaker-elect would need 218 votes for a majority. House Republicans only have 221 members in the chamber. Any three House Republicans, in other words, could effectively deny Scalise—or anyone else—the speakership. House Democrats, following the historical practice, would vote for their own leader, Hakeem Jeffries, in speakership races.

Scalise, the most obvious successor to McCarthy, received just 113 votes within the House GOP caucus. Ninety-nine of his colleagues instead voted for Ohio Representative Jim Jordan, a hyperpartisan member (even by today’s standards) of the far-right House Freedom Caucus. To say that Jordan would be a disastrous speaker is an understatement. He has shown no interest in actual governance throughout his 16-year tenure in Congress. His great passion in life appears to be yelling at people in House committee meetings.

A narrow majority isn’t a problem in and of itself. After all, House Democrats have held the chamber with razor-thin margins in recent years and avoided anything close to the leadership crisis facing House Republicans. The House GOP’s problem goes much deeper: a critical mass of their members expect the speaker to refuse to compromise on anything with the Democratic Party—a position that might work well on the campaign trail but is unfeasible in day-to-day governance.

The matters that require some amount of compromise include raising the debt ceiling, an unconstitutional measure that only functions as a gun pointed to the left temple of the American economy, or passing a continuing resolution to keep the government funded and open, which McCarthy did last month. Eight rogue House GOP members used that moment to topple him, and it’s unlikely that anyone who can replace him—if anyone even can—would survive something similar.

“The French have a word for it: ‘clusterfuck,’” Representative Mike Lawler quipped to reporters after a closed-door meeting among House Republicans on Friday morning. Representative Mike Collins posted a meme on Friday that shows two screenshots from a comedy sketch by Eric André. It shows André’s character, labeled “House Republicans,” shooting Hannibal Buress, who is labeled “Republican controlled House,” and then turning to face the camera. “Why is Jeffries the speaker?” André asks.

In theory, House Democrats could throw their weight behind one of the GOP nominees to elect them speaker. But at the moment, they have no political interest in helping Republicans solve their own internal leadership battles. I previously wrote that Democratic lawmakers should make their demands clear for any hypothetical coalition-style government, starting with abolishing the debt ceiling and restoring Covid-era expansion of the child tax credit. If the leadership vacuum goes on long enough, they just might convince a handful of swing-district House Republicans to back them.

House Republicans haven’t made things any easier on themselves by setting one another up to fail. Jordan, who denies that President Joe Biden won the 2020 election, applied that thinking to his own defeat in the speakership race. According to Politico, after Scalise won the caucus vote on Wednesday, he spoke privately with Jordan about the path forward. “You get one ballot,” Jordan reportedly told him. “And when you go down, you will nominate me.” After Scalise noted he had won under the caucus’s rules, Jordan allegedly replied, “America wants me,” and left the room.

To say that America “wants” a Jim Jordan speakership is dubious at best. Americans barely wanted a House Republican majority in the first place. The GOP gained only nine seats in the 2022 midterms and eked out a narrow five-seat majority in the chamber. This was a poor showing by historical standards: The party out of the White House typically gains far more seats in a president’s first midterms, with Barack Obama and Donald Trump seeing the House lost to wave elections in 2010 and 2018, respectively. Had it not been for Republican gerrymandering in key states, Democrats might have even retained the House.

Jordan’s road to the speakership also apparently won’t be uncontested. Georgia Representative Austin Scott, a GOP backbencher and McCarthy ally, announced shortly before Friday’s next caucus vote that he would challenge Jordan for the post. “I have filed to be Speaker of the House,” he wrote on Twitter on Friday. “We are in Washington to legislate, and I want to lead a House that functions in the best interest of the American people.”

Scott, for his part, is far from a high-profile member of the GOP caucus. He holds no leadership positions or committee chairmanships. But he may nonetheless serve as a potent rallying point for disaffected House Republicans who aren’t willing to throw their weight behind Jordan. Axios reported on Friday that Jordan is struggling to gather support from members who supported McCarthy and Scalise, in no small part because of Jordan’s perceived backstab of Scalise after the latter won the previous vote.

When House Republicans gathered on Friday afternoon to vote again, the results were similar. One hundred twenty-four members voted for Jordan for the speakership nominee. Eighty-one of them voted for Scott. While Jordan may be tempted to cast this as consolidating support, it reads like the opposite to an outsider. That Scott, a virtual unknown before the weekend, could get the backing of more than one-third of the caucus for the speakership is a testament to how divided the House GOP remains.

It’s an open question whether Republicans can overcome this and do anything of substance before the next House election, where they face the unenviable task of trying to persuade voters that they deserve another shot. If this country had a more parliamentary system, a snap election would have already been called, and the House GOP may well have lost it. For now, the leadership feud continues until the American people say otherwise—whether by voting for new lawmakers next November or by locking the current ones in and taking the roof off of the building.