Texans Pete Sessions, Roger Williams both out in whirlwind day to pick U.S. speaker

U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Waco, and fellow House Republicans depart after a conference meeting where they held a secret ballot vote on whether to drop Rep. Jim Jordan, R-OH, out of the race for House Speaker, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Oct. 20, 2023. (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Sign up for The Brief, The Texas Tribune’s daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Roger Williams of Willow Park is running for House Speaker, announcing his bid Tuesday after a tumultuous day that saw numerous attempts at the job crash and burn in quick succession.

But then he, too, was out.

Late Tuesday evening, U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana secured the House Republican Conference's speaker nomination with 128 votes. Johnson is the GOP's fourth nominee in two weeks.

Williams had expressed interest in the job last week but said in a statement over the weekend that he would not make a run. But he changed course Tuesday evening and filed his candidacy, along with five other Republicans who will be voted on by the Republican conference later in the night. Williams, who chairs the House Small Business Committee, was the only Texan left in the race. He has been in the House for more than 10 years and was previously Texas Secretary of State.

Williams decided to run only after an entire slate of nine Republican candidates — including U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions — failed to secure enough support earlier in the day to win in the full House.

Sessions had run as part of the initial slate of candidates Tuesday. The Waco Republican was one of nine candidates on Tuesday morning. Sessions had run on his experience leading the National Republican Congressional Committee and the House Rules Committee. He said chairing those bodies, which are closely tied to the campaigning and legislative aspects of the speaker’s job, gave him the leadership experience needed to unify the fractured Republican conference.

But it was not enough. Sessions was the first candidate to be voted out of the running Tuesday. He got only eight votes in a closed-door secret ballot conference vote — the fewest of all the candidates — requiring him to drop out of the race per conference rules. U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia nominated Sessions in the party meeting.

Sessions was always a long shot, but so were most of the candidates. Two members, Dan Meuser and Gary Palmer, dropped out of the race before the conference even started voting on its speaker nominee Tuesday morning.

House Majority Whip Tom Emmer, who also previously chaired the NRCC, wound up with the most votes after five rounds of voting, making him the speaker nominee. But within hours, he dropped out of the race after former President Donald Trump criticized his bid and became clear he didn't have enough votes to secure the gavel in the full chamber. He had McCarthy’s endorsement and had curried favor among Democrats for voting to certify the 2020 presidential election. Sessions did not.

Under House Republican rules, a candidate needs only a simple majority within the party conference to get the nomination. But the candidate will need 217 votes in the full House to become speaker.

Emmer was unable to secure 217 votes during a sixth round of voting to confirm his nomination. That vote was by roll-call voice vote, where 26 members opposed Emmer's nomination. Among Texans, that included Reps. Ronny Jackson, Michael Cloud and Keith Self, who all voted for failed speaker candidate Rep. Jim Jordan of the House Freedom Caucus. Reps. Chip Roy and Troy Nehls voted present, Nehls said.

Emmer beat out Reps. Mike Johnson, Kevin Hern and Byron Donalds in the initial Tuesday slate before bowing out. All three of those candidates refiled to run that evening with Williams.

Several Texans in the House Freedom Caucus had rallied around Donalds, who is part of the far-right group. Roy and Jackson had publicly backed Donalds before the vote.

Nehls said he would support a bid by Trump. Nehls was exasperated that no candidate was able to wrangle a sufficient majority in the House and said only Trump, the party's de facto leader, could unify the conference.

"We threw our all stars out now," Nehls said. "I mean what are we going to do? Go down and just put everybody's name in the damn hat? Maybe for first time in the history of our conference, we should consider somebody from the outside."

Trump and Emmer have had a fraught relationship. After Emmer's nomination vote, Trump posted on social media that Emmer "never respected the Power of a Trump Endorsement" while he was the head of the House Republican campaign arm and that voting for him would be a "tragic mistake."

Nehls, who is in close contact with Trump, declined to discuss the former president's relationship with Emmer.

Several members, including Roy, pushed for an internal rule that would require a speaker candidate secure 217 votes in conference. Doing so would avoid having any party infighting in the public eye.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw, who has blasted his own party for its repeated inability to select a speaker, mused about changing the rules to allow whoever has a plurality of support on the floor to become speaker. So far, that would be House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, who has the unfailing support of all 212 Democrats.

"So if you go against your nominee, you're literally electing a Democrat speaker," Crenshaw said.

U.S. Rep. Pat Fallon, who has backed Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana for speaker, predicted Emmer's popularity with a majority in his party may not be enough to win a big enough majority to win the full House.

"Ironically, the one that has the easiest path to 113 has maybe the toughest path to 217, and I do not want to do this anymore," Fallon said. He said he would back whomever the conference eventually nominated for the job, saying he was tired for the repetitive votes and lack of a party leader.

The House has had 18 votes for speaker this year. McCarthy took 15 rounds of voting to get the job in January. House Majority Leader Steve Scalise got the Republican nomination two weeks ago but dropped out before a floor vote when he realized he could not get 217 votes.

Jordan, a deeply conservative co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, pushed through three rounds of votes, losing support each time. The Republican conference voted to drop him as their nominee last week.