Republican search for new US House leader returns to square one

By David Morgan and Katharine Jackson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republicans, whose party infighting has paralyzed the U.S. House of Representatives for three weeks, tried on Monday to find consensus on a new speaker to lead the chamber and address funding needs for Israel, Ukraine and the federal government.

Eight candidates to be speaker, including No. 3 House Republican Tom Emmer, made their pitches to fellow Republicans at a 2-1/2 hour closed-door forum and answered questions about how they would handle the job.

“What I sense is a need to move forward because that’s what the American people want from us. They want us to come here and legislate,” said Representative Jack Bergman, one of the eight candidates.

Republicans are due to meet again on Tuesday morning to begin choosing their nominee behind closed doors, through a series of secret ballots.

With a narrow majority of 221-212 in the House, it is not clear whether any Republican can get the votes needed to claim the speakership.

But some lawmakers said the party might keep voting and negotiating in private until their next nominee has locked in 217 Republican votes, the number needed to win the gavel over Democratic opposition, before going to the House floor.

“We have to act like mature adults and come to a conclusion. And I think that we can,” said Representative Marc Molinaro.

The speaker position has this year been a flashpoint for factional strife between right-wing hardliners and more mainstream Republicans.

The House has been rudderless since Oct. 3, when former Speaker Kevin McCarthy was ousted as speaker. Infighting later derailed leadership bids by two would-be successors: No. 2 House Republican Steve Scalise and prominent conservative Jim Jordan.

“People are angry, people are frustrated, people are blaming us for the dysfunction, and they are kind of right. So we need to respond. We need to get this done,” Dan Meuser told reporters on Monday night.

He was one of nine lawmakers expected to seek the speaker position but instead used his presentation to announce he was withdrawing, leaving just eight in the field.

McCarthy has endorsed Emmer, stressing his experience in working to marshal party votes on major legislation since January, when Republicans became the majority party. But Emmer could face an uphill battle if hardliners oppose him.

The leadership vacuum of the past three weeks has stymied congressional action, as Congress faces a Nov. 17 deadline to avoid a government shutdown by extending federal agency funding, and a request from President Joe Biden to approve military aid for Israel and Ukraine.

Any candidate nominated by the party conference can afford to lose no more than four Republicans when the full House votes. Meanwhile, the conference is split over spending cuts, Ukraine funding and other hot-button issues.

Jordan tried and failed three times to win a floor vote in the House. He had been endorsed by former President Donald Trump, who is a clear favorite to win the party’s nomination to run again as president in 2024.

Democrats, who backed their own House leader Hakeem Jeffries for the speaker position, described Jordan as a dangerous extremist and opponents inside his own party were angered by a pressure campaign from his supporters that resulted in death threats.

Six of the eight new candidates for speaker – Bergman, Byron Donalds, Kevin Hern, Mike Johnson, Gary Palmer and Pete Sessions – voted to overturn Trump’s 2020 loss to President Joe Biden on the day that Trump supporters assaulted Congress on Jan. 6, 2021.

The two remaining candidates, Emmer and Austin Scott, did not vote to block the certification of the election results.

House Republicans have been embroiled in chaos all year. McCarthy needed an agonizing 15 votes to win the speaker’s gavel in January, and along the way had to made concessions that enabled a single member to force a vote for his removal.

That happened this month when eight Republicans forced him out after he passed legislation with Democratic support that averted a partial government shutdown.

Investors say the tumult has contributed to market turbulence and Biden has urged Republicans to sort out their problems.

(Reporting by David Morgan and Kat Jackson; Additional reporting by Makini Brice; Writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Stephen Coates)