WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican Steve Scalise ended his bid to become House speaker late Thursday after hardline holdouts refused to back the party’s nominee, throwing the GOP majority into deeper chaos with the chamber unable to function.
Scalise told GOP colleagues at a closed-door evening meeting of his decision and pointedly declined to announce backing for anyone else, including his chief rival, Rep. Jim Jordan, the far-right Judiciary Committee chairman backed by Donald Trump who had already told colleagues he no longer would seek the job.
Next steps are uncertain as the House is essentially closed while the Republican majority tries to elect a speaker after ousting Kevin McCarthy from the job.
“I just shared with my colleagues that I’m withdrawing my name as a candidate for speaker-designee,” Scalise said as he emerged from the closed-door meeting at the Capitol.
Scalise, R-La., said the Republican majority “still has to come together and is not there.”
He had been working furiously to secure the votes after being nominated by a majority of his colleagues, but after hours of private meetings over two days and late into the evening it was clear lawmakers were not budging from their refusal to support him.
Asked if he would throw his support behind Jordan, Scalise said, “It’s got to be people that aren’t doing it for themselves and their own personal interest.”
He said he would push quickly for a resolution. “But it wasn’t going to happen. It wasn’t going to happen today. It wasn’t going to happen tomorrow. It needs to happen soon, but I’ve withdrawn my name,” he said.
Frustrations have mounted as the political crisis spiraled and Republicans lost another day without a House speaker. Scalise was trying to peel off more than 100 votes, mostly from those who backed Jordan.
But many hard-liners taking their cues from Trump have dug in for a prolonged fight to replace McCarthy after his historic ouster from the job. They argued that Majority Leader Scalise was no better choice, that he should be focusing on his health as he battles cancer and that he was not the leader they would support. No House votes were scheduled.
McCarthy said afterward that Scalise would remain as majority leader but had no other advice for his colleagues. The California Republican had briefly flirted with a comeback bid but it’s unclear if he would try again.
“I just think the conference as a whole has to figure out their problems, solve it and select the leader,” he said.
The House is entering its second week without a speaker and is essentially unable to function during a time of turmoil in the U.S. and wars overseas, and the political pressure increasingly is on Republicans to reverse course, reassert majority control and govern in Congress.
Action is needed to fund the government or face the threat of a federal shutdown in a month. Lawmakers also want Congress to deliver a strong statement of support for Israel in the war with Hamas, but a bipartisan resolution has been sidelined by the stalemate in the House. The White House is expected to soon ask for money for Israel, Ukraine and the backfill of the U.S. weapons stockpile.
The situation is not fully different from the start of the year, when McCarthy faced a similar backlash from a different group of far-right holdouts who ultimately gave their votes to elect him speaker, then engineered his historic downfall.
But the math this time is even more daunting, and the problematic political dynamic only worsening.
Scalise, who is seen by some colleagues as hero for having survived a 2017 shooting on lawmakers at a congressional baseball game practice, won the closed-door Republican vote 113-99.
But Scalise would have needed 217 votes to reach a majority in a floor battle with Democrats. The chamber is narrowly split 221-212, with two vacancies, meaning Scalise could lose just a few Republicans in the face of opposition from Democrats who will most certainly back their own leader, New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries. Absences heading into the weekend could lower the majority threshold needed.
Jordan’s backers revived calls for party members to get behind the Ohio Republican, who is a founding leader of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus.
“Make him the speaker. Do it tonight,” said Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind. “He’s the only one who can unite our party. It’s time to get behind him.”
Other potential speaker nominees were being floated, including from the leadership team, but splitting the votes multiple ways would almost certainly only complicate the factional dynamics in the House majority.
Some Republicans simply want Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., who was appointed interim speaker pro tempore, to be given greater authority to lead the House. A proposal was floated for just that earlier Thursday by the conservative but pragmatic Republican Governance Group of lawmakers.
Rank-and-file Republicans left Thursday night’s meeting flummoxed about what to do next.
“I’m a freshman caught up in this maelstrom,” said Rep. Mark Alford, R-Mo. “We’re a ship without a rudder right now. And I’m thoroughly disappointed in the process. And I just pray to God that we find something.
Exasperated Democrats, who have been watching and waiting for the Republican majority to recover from McCarthy’s ouster, urged them to figure it out, warning the world is watching.
“The House Republicans need to end the GOP Civil War, now,” Jeffries said.
“The House Democrats have continued to make clear that we are ready, willing and able to find a bipartisan path forward,” he said, urging that the House reopen and change GOP-led rules that allowed a single lawmaker to put in motion the process to remove the speaker.
As Congress sat idle, the Republicans spent a second day behind closed doors, arguing and airing grievances but failing to follow their own party rules and unite behind the nominee.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, said the meetings had been marked by “emotional” objections to voting for Scalise.
Some Republicans simply took their Chick-fil-A lunches to go.
Jordan had given his most vocal endorsement yet to Scalise and announced he did not plan to continue running for the leadership position.
“We need to come together and support Steve,” Jordan, R-Ohio, told reporters before the midday closed session.
But it was not enough to sway the holdouts.
Handfuls of hard-liners announced they were sticking with Jordan, McCarthy or someone other than Scalise.
Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, reaffirmed his support for Trump as speaker; the position does not need to go to a member of Congress.
Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, repeatedly discussed Scalise’s health during a radio interview that aired Thursday.
“Well, I like Steve. I like both of them very much. But the problem, you know, Steve is a man that is in serious trouble, from the standpoint of his cancer,” Trump said on Fox News host Brian Kilmeade’s radio show.
Scalise has been diagnosed with a form of blood cancer known as multiple myeloma and is being treated.
“I think it’s going to be very hard, maybe in either case, for somebody to get,” Trump said. “And then you end up in one of these crazy stalemates. It’s a very interesting situation.”
Many Republicans want to prevent the spectacle of a messy House floor fight like the grueling January brawl when McCarthy became speaker.
But others said it was time for Republicans to get out from behind closed doors and vote.
“Stop dragging it out,” said Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., on social media. “If Kevin McCarthy had to go 15 rounds then the next Speaker should be able to do the same or more if they have to.”