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House Republicans embark on electing third speaker nominee as Trump looms

House Republicans will regroup and again try to elect a speaker of the House this week, a usually simple task that has proved nearly impossible in a divided and wounded Republican conference that has for three weeks been unable to choose a leader.

Eight candidates from across the Republican ideological spectrum presented their pitch to their party Monday in another closed-door meeting, a rare event that has become commonplace in recent weeks. Republicans have been without a leader since they removed Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) as speaker earlier this month and then failed to coalesce around Majority Leader Steve Scalise (La.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) as their next nominees on the House floor.

This week’s deliberation, however, could have an additional complicating factor of unknown consequence: former president Donald Trump.

Trump, who has been occupied with legal troubles and a presidential campaign, has largely allowed House Republicans to determine their own fate, saying on Monday that he’s “tried to stay out of it.” And it’s not clear the power of his endorsement, or lack thereof. Jordan, his preferred candidate, stepped down last week as the conference’s speaker-designee, despite intense pressure from conservative supporters who flooded congressional offices with phone calls.

But the threat of Trump’s opposition remains. Behind the scenes, he personally directed his allies to hammer front-runner candidate, Majority Whip Tom Emmer (R-Minn.), according to two people familiar with the directive who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

Emmer’s sins, according to people close to Trump, include voting to certify the 2020 election and failing to endorse Trump, both privately and publicly. Emmer, 62, also has gained the reputation of being the last Republican in leadership to publicly defend Trump in various situations.

Trump’s opinion is, of course, not the only factor in the race. When Republicans eventually elect a speaker, they will immediately be faced with navigating an upcoming government funding deadline and a $106 billion emergency aid package for Israel, Ukraine and the southern border. The conference is set to vote behind closed doors via secret ballot for their preferred candidate Tuesday morning, and the lowest-ranking candidate will be eliminated in subsequent rounds until someone receives majority support. The speaker-designate must then find the support of 217 Republicans — a majority of the House of Representatives — on the House floor, as no Democrat is expected to back the Republican speaker candidate.

“Anyone who went home would have heard from their constituents that enough was enough. We have to get back to governing,” Rep. Marc J. Molinaro (R-N.Y.) said. He hails from a swing district and said he wanted a speaker who would “recognize that members like me and constituents like mine deserve a seat at the table.”

In addition to Emmer, Reps. Kevin Hern (Okla.), Pete Sessions (Tex.), Austin Scott (Ga.), Byron Donalds (Fla.), Jack Bergman (Mich.), Mike Johnson (La.) and Gary Palmer (Ala.) are running for speaker and pledging they can unite Republicans. Rep. Dan Meuser (Pa.) dropped out of the race after Monday’s forum, saying he was pleased to have input on “some structural reforms” to the speaker’s role. He pointedly noted that “my constituents are furious” and “they are blaming us” for the dysfunction on the Hill.

Overcoming divisions will be difficult in a deeply fractious conference, where factions have their preferred candidate, opposition research is being spread, and outside parties with grudges are involved. Republicans, dejected and pessimistic after failing for three weeks to elect a speaker who would reopen the House, are privately predicting that none of the eight candidates could get 217 votes by the end of the week.

Emmer — aware of the challenge Trump could pose, especially if he decides to weigh in directly — spoke with the former president over the phone Saturday, in which they had a “productive” conversation, according to a person familiar with the call. But a person close with Trump played down the significance of the call, saying it was a “polite conversation. End of story.”

During a stop to officially file his candidacy for president in New Hampshire on Monday, Trump said Emmer is his “biggest fan now because he called me yesterday and told me he’s my biggest fan.” Trump acknowledged that all candidates for speaker are “great people.”

Emmer thanked Trump on X, formerly known as Twitter, and said, “If my colleagues elect me Speaker of the House, I look forward to continuing our strong working relationship.”

Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) was skeptical that any outside effort could sway lawmakers, saying, “Most of these guys and gals can’t be bullied to do anything.” He pointed out “external pressure didn’t keep McCarthy in office, external pressure did not get Steve Scalise elected, external pressure did not get Jim Jordan elected.”

While Emmer is considered the front-runner in the race, Donalds has surprised many lawmakers by gaining traction across several ideological factions. Serving in his second term, some fear Donalds, 44, is too green to be speaker. But advocates say he has built relationships across the conference, with many citing his personality as a key factor in proving himself to pragmatic Republicans after trying to negotiate a deal to extend government funding last month. The House Freedom Caucus member also has support from many lawmakers in his 2020 congressional class and the Florida delegation who are eager to see a young, Black candidate as their speaker, saying he embodies the “future” of the Republican Party.

Still, Emmer formally entered the race Saturday with front-runner status. In his position as the third-highest-ranking Republican in House leadership, the whip has built deep relationships with members across the conference. He also spent four years as chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House Republicans’ campaign arm, and he was key in electing many of the Republicans who currently serve — offering him some built-in loyalty.

But Trump’s opposition could hamper Emmer’s ability to find 217 Republican votes in the slim majority. Some Trump allies have mounted a campaign against his bid, and a 200-page opposition research book from last year’s contested race for whip is being recirculated.

Emmer has pushed back on what his team calls misconceptions. In addition to the phone call with Trump, Emmer has spoken with Trump allies and lawmakers who are close with the former president to point out that Emmer has vowed to endorse whomever the Republican presidential nominee is.

McCarthy endorsed Emmer’s candidacy on Friday, moments after his deputy began calling Republicans to gauge their interest in supporting him for speaker. McCarthy thinks Emmer, who diligently worked to elect McCarthy as speaker and has since become a key confidant, is best equipped to keep the majority given his years as NRCC chair, according to a person close to McCarthy.

“He sets himself, head and shoulders, above all those others who want to run,’ McCarthy said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.

Though Emmer has created strong relationships with Republicans he helped recruit and elect, he is somewhat surprisingly having to shore up support among moderate and centrist Republicans. Emmer, they say, had a role in helping to defeat a resolution that would have temporarily given expanded powers to Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick T. McHenry. They saw Emmer’s role as self-serving, since implementation of the resolution would have prevented him from running for speaker.

As whip, Emmer has been the go-to member of the Republican leadership team for the far-right House Freedom Caucus and has built significant trust with them. He has close ties to Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), who has been one of Emmer’s biggest champions inside the group. But as speaker, some members of the group and ideological conservatives want clarification on some of Emmer’s policies — including his past vote in support of a short-term government funding bill and protecting same-sex marriage — before they are willing to back him.

Emmer is one of two speaker candidates, along with Scott, 53, who voted to certify the 2020 election. Each also voted for the debt ceiling deal made with President Biden and for the short-term government funding extension — both of which relied on Democratic votes to pass and cost McCarthy the speaker’s gavel. Emmer was responsible for whipping votes for both pieces of legislation, which makes some Republicans consider him an extension of McCarthy.

“There is no perfect speaker, there is no perfect person,” Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) said before Monday’s forum. He said Emmer’s vote to certify the election wasn’t a deal breaker and Republicans needed to look at the total package of a person. “Everybody up here has got to sell themselves.”

Sessions, 68, another former NRCC chairman, said discontent over the handling of the debt limit and funding the government “harmed all the leadership team.’

“I think the whole leadership team’s being held accountable for it,” Sessions said.

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), who instigated McCarthy’s ouster, said earlier this month that he appreciated Emmer’s leadership style because he is blunt and honest, unlike McCarthy who made several promises across the conference that he could not keep. But Gaetz publicly remained noncommittal Monday, saying he has “encouraged all of our Speaker candidates to support President Trump, to reach out to him, and to seek his advice.”

The question of how to fund the government is expected to be top of mind for Republicans. Far-right lawmakers have taken to Jordan’s proposal of passing a bill that would fund the government until April, while triggering a 1 percent cut for all domestic and defense discretionary spending. Some candidates are expected to back that plan.

Donalds has endorsed a version of that, proposing it alongside five other Republican negotiators as part of a solution that would have averted a government shutdown last month. That proposal cut 1 percent across all government departments, but exempted the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments. Donalds has gained support among some pragmatic Republicans because of his work trying to negotiate that government funding extension.

Hern, 61, said he will keep the House in session to pass appropriations bills, but he acknowledged that a short-term funding bill might be necessary.

“I think there’s gonna have to be some short-term [continuing resolution] that has to be done in order to accomplish the goals, then we can get those appropriation bills done,” Hern said.

It’s a position that’s not different from that of McCarthy, who lost his job over the short-term funding bill that averted a shutdown on Sept. 30. But the reality is that Republicans still need to pass eight appropriations bills without Democratic support before the November deadline.

Hern, a former McDonalds franchise owner, sent a letter Monday touting his candidacy to every member of the conference with a McDonalds hamburger. The chair of the largest group of conservatives in the House, the Republican Study Committee, he said he will do better at building coalitions and support.

He said he will split off $60 billion for Ukraine from the rest of the emergency aid package sought by President Biden, as opposition to Ukraine funding continues to grow in the Republican Party.

Sessions described Russia as “an existential threat against not only Ukraine but against the stability of Europe” but suggested that he wouldn’t let his views override the conference.

“I’m not going to say whether I am or not going to be pushing the Ukraine funding,” he said when asked how he would handle Biden’s request for $106 billion for Israel, Ukraine, U.S. border security and countering China. “I can tell you I will press the Israeli funding.”

Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

correction

A previous version of this article misidentified Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) as majority whip. He is majority leader. The article has been updated.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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