Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has yet to secure enough GOP votes to win the speaker’s gavel when the new Congress convenes on Jan. 3, prompting some Republican lawmakers to start eyeing his deputy, Steve Scalise, as a last-minute substitute.
Supporters say that Mr. Scalise, 57, has all the right traits to win the job.
House Republican lawmakers are nevertheless warning the Louisiana Republican to be prepared to step in if Mr. McCarthy cannot secure a simple majority when lawmakers in both parties vote for House speaker on the opening day of the 118th Congress, which is just days away.
Only a handful of lawmakers say they won’t vote for Mr. McCarthy, 57, of California, who was elected in 2006 and has headed the Republican conference since 2019. Before his rise to the top of the GOP leadership ladder, he served five years as majority leader after abandoning a quest to become House speaker in 2015 amid criticism about his communication skills.
Since then, Mr. McCarthy has won over the vast majority of the GOP conference, helped by big GOP wins in the 2018 election and prolific fundraising for Republican candidates. But the party won just a five-seat House majority in the November election, far short of a predicted red wave. The narrow win not only disappointed rank-and-file Republicans, but it also left the party with a small enough majority to empower five discontented GOP lawmakers to hold up Mr. McCarthy’s election to speaker.
Since both parties vote for speaker, Mr. McCarthy must secure the support of at least 218 of the 222 Republicans if every lawmaker shows up and votes for a candidate.
Mr. Scalise, on the other hand, could quickly round up enough support, some Republicans believe.
Mr. Scalise was elected in 2008 and rose in the GOP ranks one step below Mr. McCarthy. Mr. Scalise served as majority whip from 2014 until 2019, then became minority whip when the GOP lost the majority to the Democrats in 2018. Mr. Scalise has always eyed a higher leadership position but has never challenged Mr. McCarthy.
“Kevin and I are not running against each other,” Mr. Scalise said months ago in an interview. “Obviously, he‘s had a strong interest in becoming speaker, and he‘s going to get there. But I’ve been clear, too. I’m not talking about what position I’m going to run for tomorrow. I’m working on the job I’ve got to do today.”
Rep. Andy Biggs, Arizona Republican, is leading the effort to depose Mr. McCarthy. He told The Times that Republicans need “a change agent.” Mr. Biggs announced earlier this month that he is a candidate for speaker, despite losing overwhelmingly to Mr. McCarthy in a closed-door vote in November.
In addition to Mr. Biggs, the list of anti-McCarthy rebels are Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Matthew M. Rosendale of Montana, Ralph Norman of South Carolina and Bob Good of Virginia.
While Mr. McCarthy may be able to win over a few in the pack, Mr. Gaetz said he’s a hard “no.”
In an op-ed published in the Daily Caller, Mr. Gaetz blamed Mr. McCarthy for the disappointing election results.
“In sports, when the team loses games it is supposed to win, the coach gets fired,” Mr. Gaetz wrote. “In business, when earnings vastly miss projections, the CEO is replaced. In Republican politics, a promotion shouldn’t be failure’s chaser.”
Mr. McCarthy, meanwhile, is in talks with some of the discontented lawmakers in a bid to win their support.
He‘s backed by dozens of GOP lawmakers who have been sporting “Only Kevin” buttons, indicating they won’t vote for any candidate other than Mr. McCarthy, which would kill the effort to sub in Mr. Scalise or anyone else.
One reason Mr. McCarthy has yet to round up the votes for speaker is that he‘s been reluctant to negotiate with Mr. Biggs and the other opponents. He’s concerned that making concessions will lead to more demands and more infighting next year when the GOP controls the House agenda, according to Republicans familiar with Mr. McCarthy‘s thinking.
Mr. McCarthy joined conservatives in voting against the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending package that cleared the Democratic-led Congress on Dec. 22, and he helped ensure the measure repealed the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
He called the spending bill a “monstrosity” and pledged that “when I’m Speaker, their bills will be dead on arrival in the House.”
House Democrats, soon to be in the minority, are watching the GOP infighting over the speaker’s gavel with glee.
House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, Massachusetts Democrat, made a sharp observation after Mr. McCarthy denounced the spending bill on the House floor.
“After listening to that,” Mr. McGovern said, “it’s clear he doesn’t have the votes yet.”