WASHINGTON (AP) - The House Republican majority is stuck, one week after the ouster of Speaker Kevin McCarthy, with lawmakers unable to coalesce around a new leader in a stalemate that threatens to keep Congress partly shuttered indefinitely.
On Tuesday evening, two leading contenders for the gavel, Majority Leader Steve Scalise and Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan, were addressing colleagues behind closed doors at a candidate forum. But they appeared to be splitting the vote.
McCarthy, meanwhile, was openly ready to reclaim the gavel he just lost, but was seen by many as a longshot option unlikely to win back the handful of hardliners who just ousted him.
"We’re going to get the House back to work," Scalise said Tuesday ahead of the meeting.
House Republicans took the majority aspiring to operate as a team, and run government more like a business, but have drifted far from that goal. Just 10 months in power, the historic ouster of their House speaker — a first in the U.S. — and the prolonged infighting it has unleashed are undercutting the Republicans' ability to govern at a time of crisis at home and abroad.
Now, as House Republicans push ahead toward snap elections Wednesday aimed at finding a new nominee for speaker, the hard-right coalition of lawmakers that ousted McCarthy has shown what an oversized role a few lawmakers can have in choosing the successor.
"This is a hard conference to lead," said Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark. "A lot of free agents."
Both Scalise and Jordan are working furiously to shore up support. Both are easily winning over dozens of supporters and could win the majority of Republicans, about 110 votes.
But it's unclear if either Scalise or Jordan can amass the 217 votes eventually needed in a floor vote to overcome opposition from Democrats. A vote could come as soon as Wednesday.
Many Republicans want to prevent the spectacle of a messy House floor fight like the grueling January brawl when McCarthy became speaker.
"We’re in a similar situation that we were back in January," said Doug Heye, a former Republican leadership aide, adding the political optics of the feud look "terrible" to American voters.
Some have proposed a rules change that Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., the interim speaker pro tempore, is considering ahead of a party meeting early Wednesday to ensure a majority vote behind closed doors before the nominee is presented for a full floor vote in the House.
McCarthy himself appeared to agree with a consensus approach. "They shouldn’t come out of there until they decide that they have enough votes for whoever they bring to the floor," McCarthy said.
But short of a rules change, Republican lawmakers would be expected to agree to a majority-wins process — whichever candidate wins in the internal private vote would be given the full backing of the Republicans on the House.
It’s no guarantee — with trust low among House Republicans and tensions high, those normal protocols could be challenged.
"The party will have to soul- and vote-search," Heye said.
While both are conservatives from the right flank, neither Scalise nor Jordan is the heir apparent to McCarthy.
Scalise as the second-ranking Republican would be next in line for the gavel and is seen as a hero among colleagues for having survived severe injuries from a mass shooting during a congressional baseball practice in 2017. Now battling blood cancer, the Louisianan is not a clear lock.
Jordan is a high-profile political firebrand known for his close alliance with Donald Trump, particularly when the then-president was working to overturn the results of the 2020 election, leading to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. Trump has backed Jordan's bid for the gavel.
Several lawmakers, including Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who engineered McCarthy's ouster said they would be willing to support either Scalise or Jordan.
"I think it’s a competitive race for speaker because we’ve got two greats," said Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky.
Barr said he was working to help secure votes for Scalise, but would be comfortable with either candidate.
Others though, particularly more centrist conservative Republicans from districts that are narrowly split between the parties, are holding out for another choice.
"Personally, I’m still with McCarthy," said Rep. David Valadao, a Republican who represents a California district not far from the former speaker's district.
"We’ll see how that plays out, but I do know a large percentage of the membership wants to be there with him as well."
McCarthy headed into the evening forum insisting he was not, at the moment, a candidate for speaker and urging his colleagues to resolve the issue internally Wednesday before bringing a nominee forward to a full House vote.
But the California Republican gave a nod to his own short track record as speaker — being ousted by the far-right flank after he led Congress to approve a stopgap spending bill to prevent a disruptive federal government shutdown.
"I think it’s important whoever takes that job is willing to risk the job for doing what’s right for the American public," McCarthy said.
For now, McHenry is effectively in charge. He has shown little interest in expanding his power beyond the role he was assigned — an interim leader tasked with ensuring the election of the next speaker.
The role was created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to ensure the continuity of government. McHenry's name was at the top of a list submitted by McCarthy when he became speaker in January.
While some Republicans, and Democrats, are open to empowering McHenry the longer he holds the temporary position, that seems unlikely as the speaker's fight drags on.
McHenry told reporters it's "my goal" to keep to the schedule to have hold a House speaker election on Wednesday. He quickly gaveled the House in and out of a brief session Tuesday, with no business conducted.
Associated Press writers Farnoush Amiri and Stephen Groves contributed to this report.