U.S. House speaker hopefuls seek Texas GOP’s blessing

House Majority Whip Tom Emmer, R-MN, talks to reporters as he departs a meeting with the Texas Republican House delegation the morning after former Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy was ousted from the position, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Oct. 4, 2023. (Reuters/Evelyn Hockstein, Reuters/Evelyn Hockstein)

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WASHINGTON — Less than one day after Kevin McCarthy was dramatically ousted as U.S. House speaker, a group of potential candidates to fill his shoes lined up before the powerful Texas Republican delegation and sought its blessing.

Texas Republicans hosted three such members at their weekly lunch on Wednesday: Majority Leader Steve Scalise of Louisiana, House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan of Ohio and Republican Study Committee Chair Kevin Hern of Oklahoma. Majority Whip Tom Emmer of Minnesota also attended as he seeks to become the Majority Leader. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler of Pennsylvania made his pitch to become majority whip.

At 25 members, Texas has the largest Republican delegation in the House by far, and gaining their support would be a major boost for any candidate as the conference meets to pick its new leadership next week. The Republican conference plans to pick a speaker nominee next week ahead of a Wednesday House-wide election.

“Texas is a large voting bloc here. We are a state that's leading the nation on conservative principles,” said U.S. Rep. Michael Cloud, R-Victoria, as he exited the lunch.

Few members had made up their minds before the lunch — at least publicly — and members didn’t tell reporters which way they were leaning as they left. Several members said the candidates made nearly identical pitches and that any one of them would be a good speaker so long as they can get the fractured Republican conference unified.

“Policy wise, there's maybe one millimeter of difference between them,” U.S. Rep. August Pfluger, R-San Angelo, said as he left the meeting. “We want to know who can unite, and there's really good pitches. So we're gonna keep listening.”

A couple of members, however, needed no convincing. U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-San Antonio, jumped behind Scalise almost immediately after McCarthy was ousted Tuesday night. Gonzales, who represents more of the border than any other Texan, said he felt Scalise “knows the border inside and out” and that the Louisianian was “exactly the man we need to keep this conference together.”

When asked if Gonzales had come to the lunch to lobby on Scalise’s behalf, he quipped “I came here for lunch!” Gonzales left the meeting shortly after it began.

U.S. Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Richmond, said Tuesday night on social media that he would nominate former President Donald Trump at the party meeting next week. Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene also floated the former president, who is running for reelection next year.

Though a speaker does not legally need to be a member of Congress, the odds of a Trump speaker bid are vanishingly thin. Trump was nominated in January for the position, which led to laughter on the House floor, but Nehls backed McCarthy at the time. Nehls did not attend Wednesday’s lunch due to a prior commitment in his district.

There’s no guarantee that the Texans will vote as a bloc next week, and members remained hesitant Wednesday to share how they were planning to vote. The Republicans in the delegation remained united opposing McCarthy’s, but they have had deep fractures on a host of issues this year, from border policy to aid for Ukraine.

Three Texans — Chip Roy of Austin, Keith Self of McKinney and Cloud — were among the far-right members opposing McCarthy’s speakership bid back in January, though they eventually backed him after striking a deal with McCarthy’s allies. Self, who previously supported Jordan in the January speaker race, said before Wednesday’s meeting that he still admires the Ohioan but was keeping his mind open.

But Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, a McCarthy ally who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he hoped the delegation would come together as a team. McCaul said the Texas members are going to “huddle up” and make a decision on who they’re supporting. Multiple other members also expressed optimism that the party will be united behind a single candidate after the conference meeting next week.

“We like to stick together,” McCaul said. “We have three good candidates for speaker and you know, we need to do this fast because we're wasting time on the floor right now.”

Border security was a major focal point in the candidates’ pitches and a top priority for the Texans. House Republicans passed a massive border hardening package earlier this year that was largely based on a framework worked out by Texas members. It has no chance of success in the Democratic-controlled Senate or with President Joe Biden, but members showed no intention of slowing their push for a more secure border.

“I don't think anybody can doubt the priority that we have to have at our border,” U.S. Rep. Beth Van Duyne, R-Irving, said. “All of the candidates today were very clear that that's where their attention is.”

Members were also concerned about lowering federal spending and passing legislation to keep the government funded. Congress has until mid-November before they need to either pass legislation to fund the rest of the fiscal year or another stop-gap measure to stave off a shutdown. But House Republicans have been in a stand-off with their Senate counterparts and Democrats over where that spending should be.

The current speaker race — which has shut down all other business on the House floor — was poorly timed as Congress scrambles to pass that appropriations legislation, U.S. Rep. Jake Ellzey, R-Waxahachie, said.

“We don't have time to waste, so we don't have time to put training wheels on anybody else to get this process started,” Ellzey said. “This isn't ideal, but we can look back on the past or we can look forward. We really don't have any choice.”

With a new speaker could also come changes to the House rules — the primary sticking point in McCarthy’s race in January. Far-right members at the time demanded greater buy-in from their faction of the party in Republican decision making, including via the rule that allowed a single member to start a vote to oust the speaker that led to McCarthy’s downfall.

Cloud said Wednesday that he hoped a future speaker wouldn’t alter the rules package that he and other far-right members negotiated, saying that they had hoped the changes would “rewrite the muscle memory of Congress” and endure long beyond their terms.

But Rep. Dan Crenshaw, a Houston Republican who long expressed discomfort with some of the rules changes for being too free-welding, said he did not support the rule allowing a single member to launch a speaker’s removal. McCarthy said Tuesday that his ouster was driven by personal animus from Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, who filed the motion to fire the speaker.

Hern defended the rule after the lunch, pointing out it was the House’s practice before former Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi changed it to increase the threshold.

Crenshaw expressed optimism that the next speaker will be chosen swiftly because none of the candidates have the same personal feuds that Gaetz and McCarthy did.

“That’s a good start,” Crenshaw quipped.

The lunch is a weekly tradition among the delegation’s Republicans, where staffers and reporters are strictly prohibited. The state’s senators also often go. Sen. John Cornyn, who decried McCarthy’s ouster as rambunctious members who “just want to blow up the institution and themselves in the process,” attended Wednesday, but Sen. Ted Cruz did not. The members met over plates of Hill Country Barbecue, a Texas-themed restaurant in Washington.

The House was originally scheduled to be in recess this week, and most members outside the delegation went back to their home districts once McCarthy lost his speakership Tuesday. Members trickled out of Wednesday’s lunch to catch flights back to Texas.

“I love that you guys got all piled up about this meeting,” Crenshaw joked with the large horde of reporters staking out the meeting. “This is a normal Texas lunch.”