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Race for speaker of the House slides into uncertainty, again

Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., won an internal GOP vote for speaker but Republicans remain divided and unsure if he has the votes in the full House to elected speaker.
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Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., won an internal GOP vote for speaker but Republicans remain divided and unsure if he has the votes in the full House to elected speaker.

House Republicans once hoped they could quickly select a new speaker of the House and quell the drama within their ranks, but by Thursday afternoon an easy resolution seemed to be slipping further away.

Less than 24 hours after a narrow majority of House Republicans selected Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., as speaker designate, his chances of winning enough votes to be elected speaker in a vote on the House floor seemed to be shrinking. Any candidate would need roughly 217 votes to be approved.

Speaking to reporters after a nearly three-hour closed-door session, Scalise downplayed the tension and vowed to keep working to woo votes from skeptics.

"We're going to continue to go through this process as we grow our support and work towards getting this resolved and getting the House back open," Scalise told reporters.

But that process was far from encouraging. Former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., suggested that Scalise had fallen short of his own private estimates of support and that winning people over would not be easy.

"It's not an easy task," McCarthy said. "It's a big hill."

Scalise won 113 votes during a closed-door vote of House Republicans on Wednesday. That was enough to beat House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, but still far from enough to win on the House floor.

Scalise can lose only a handful of Republicans if he hopes to secure a majority. And as the vacancy drags on, it is raising concerns about not only Republicans' ability to govern but their ability to convince voters that they deserve to stay in power next year.

Serious worries as dysfunction drags on

Republicans vented frustrations after a closed-door meeting in the Capitol basement on Thursday, according to members who were in the room.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, warned that the Republican Party's internal disputes have much more serious consequences.

"We are living in a dangerous world. The world is on fire. Our adversaries are watching what we do, and quite frankly they like it," McCaul said. "We need to fill the chair with a speaker. Every day that goes by, it gets more dangerous."

McCaul warned that Congress will soon need to act to provide more aid to Israel — and the House will need a speaker to do that. He also warned that the infighting and instability undermines the United States' image abroad.

"I see a lot of threats out there, but one of the biggest threats I see is in that room," McCaul told reporters, gesturing at the meeting space where his colleagues continued to meet. "Because we can't unify as a conference and put a speaker in the chair to govern."

Support for Scalise erodes

McCarthy made a point of telling reporters that even as Scalise won on Wednesday, he fell short of the support that he privately promised he could achieve. It is a distinction that speaks to the fragility of Scalise's position.

Even members who supported Scalise and worked to win votes have openly suggested that the only way forward is to force a vote on the floor and see what happens.

Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., told reporters that holding a vote, even if it fails, might be their only option.

"We need to know what the numbers are," Womack said. "People can say one thing, tweet something else. And so we really are all over the map on this thing."

Womack's comments came after a number of members, including those who voted for Scalise, started airing concerns on Twitter or in conversations with reporters.

Rep. Keith Self, R-Texas, was among those whose position has flip-flopped in recent days.

Other members specifically raised concerns about Scalise's health as he battles multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer.

Scalise began cancer treatment in August but has repeatedly insisted that the treatments are going well and that he is feeling good.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., has been clear that Scalise's health is part of her motivation in opposing him. Greene is also a close supporter of Jordan and is in frequent contact with former President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly sought to influence the House GOP leadership race.

Trump's influence

Trump endorsed Jordan in the race, but that endorsement didn't appear to be a major factor in the secret-ballot vote.

In an interview with Fox News Radio's Brian Kilmeade on Thursday, Trump said he likes both Jordan and Scalise "very much," but he raised concerns about Scalise's health. "He's got a very serious form of cancer. And, you know, most importantly, I want Steve to get well. I just don't know how you can do the job [with the disease]," Trump said, adding that it was "a serious problem."

Trump acknowledged that with the narrow House Republican margin, it would be hard for either Scalise or Jordan to secure the 217 votes needed, if all members are present and voting.

"I think Steve will lose far more than four," Trump said. "And I think probably Jim will too."

Trump endorsed McCarthy for the position in January, but McCarthy still had to endure 14 rounds of voting before Trump weighed in a final time for McCarthy to get over the finish line in a 15th round.

NPR's Elena Moore contributed to this story.

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Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.
Lexie Schapitl
Lexie Schapitl is an assistant producer with NPR's Washington Desk, where she produces radio pieces, the NPR Politics Podcast, and digital content. She also reports from the field and helps run the NPR Politics social media channels.
Deirdre Walsh
Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.
Claudia Grisales
Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.