Normally, you’d figure House Majority Leader Steve Scalise would be a virtual lock as the deposed House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s successor. He was the second-ranking House Republican under McCarthy for nearly five years. He has a reputation for being slightly more conservative than the Californian (or at least more authentically conservative; who knows what McCarthy really believes?). And he has, by all accounts, a more congenial personality. Scalise’s chief rival Jim Jordan may be better known publicly as a co-founder of the troublesome House Freedom Caucus and now as the chairman of the MAGA vengeance-seeking Judiciary Committee. In the cloistered world of the U.S. House of Representatives, Scalise has the relationships that usually count most, including a history of raising money for their campaigns. He also became a bit of a hero to his colleagues after his severe wounding by a deranged gunman at a congressional baseball practice in 2017; he literally took a bullet for the team.
Earlier this week, it seemed like Scalise’s major challenge would be convincing colleagues that he’s healthy enough to do the job, as he has been undergoing treatment for blood cancer. But now his biggest problem is that Donald Trump has endorsed Jim Jordan.
It’s unclear whether Jordan reached out to Trump for help or Trump intervened on his own initiative. Scalise has done nothing to cross the former president. But Trump and Jordan have had a closer relationship over the years. And the bond has only been strengthened by the Judiciary Committee’s efforts to relieve Trump’s legal problems through the “Weaponization” subcommittee Jordan set up to investigate alleged abuse of power by Trump’s tormentors in the Justice Department.
Trump’s backing is one of two aces in the hole Jordan possesses. The other is his street cred with the right-wing hard-liners who took down McCarthy. They could gain control of the upcoming Speaker’s election, just as they did back in January, when they forced McCarthy to go through 15 ballots and make concession after concession to win their acceptance.
The Speaker’s election is a two-step process. Next week, the GOP conference will take a secret-ballot vote to name their nominee for the job. But then the full House will formally elect the Speaker, and it will only take five Republican holdouts to deadlock the balloting (as in January, House Democrats will almost certainly remain united in voting for their leader, Hakeem Jeffries).
Perhaps with Trump’s help, Jordan can secure enough hard-liner backing to make him the likelier winner in the full balloting, even if Scalise has more support from House Republicans generally. To put it bluntly, as Kevin McCarthy learned, having the backing of all but five House Republicans isn’t enough; the magic number for victory is 2018.
Unfortunately for the country, the reign of terror imposed by Matt Gaetz and his allies in pursuit of maximum confrontation with Democrats over spending levels and other MAGA priorities remains in place at least until McCarthy’s successor is chosen. What that successor plans to do upon the expiration of the 45-day stopgap spending bill McCarthy fatally accepted will be a huge issue in the Speaker’s balloting. Hard-liners may demand and more moderate Republicans may resist another government-shutdown crisis. How Jordan navigates that issue may determine his prospects for victory.