Republicans Jim Jordan and Steve Scalise launch House speakership bids

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Jim Jordan of Ohio and Steve Scalise of Louisiana announced Wednesday they would seek to succeed Kevin McCarthy as speaker of the US House of Representatives, after the Californian was brutally removed by his own Republican party on Tuesday.

Jordan is chair of the powerful judiciary committee, while Scalise is the majority leader. Both had been named as potential successors to McCarthy, and they confirmed their intentions to run for the top House job a day after the speakership was declared vacant.

Related: A tense political moment: McCarthy laughs as ouster is decided

Pitching his candidacy in a “Dear Colleague” letter, Jordan pledged to unify his fractious conference, which has repeatedly stumbled under the weight of a razor-thin majority.

“We are at a critical crossroad in our nation’s history. Now is the time for our Republican conference to come together to keep our promises to Americans,” Jordan said. “No matter what we do, we must do it together as a conference. I respectfully ask for your support for speaker of the House of Representatives.”

But Scalise argued he had the experience needed to unite the conference, after serving as part of the House Republican leadership team for the past decade.

“I have a proven track record of bringing together the diverse array of viewpoints within our Conference to build consensus where others thought it impossible,” Scalise said in his own “Dear Colleague” letter. “We have an extremely talented Conference, and we all need to come together and pull in the same direction to get the country back on the right track.”

Weighing in on the speakership race, Joe Biden expressed concern over the “dysfunction” in the House and emphasized the importance of continuing funding to Ukraine, which has become a source of outrage among hard-right lawmakers.

Asked for his advice to the next House speaker, Biden laughed and said: “That’s above my pay grade.”

Ukraine could become a central focus of House Republicans’ speaker candidate forum, which is scheduled for next Tuesday. Asked about his stance on approving more funding for Ukraine, Jordan said: “I’m against that … The most pressing issue on Americans’ mind is not Ukraine. It is the border situation, and it is crime on the streets.”

Another sticking point for Republicans involves the mechanism that Matt Gaetz used to oust McCarthy, the motion to vacate. Under current House rules, any single member can force a vote on removing the speaker, and some of the more moderate House Republicans want to raise that threshold to avoid a repeat of Tuesday’s spectacle.

“The ability for one person to vacate the speaker of the House will keep a chokehold on this body through 2024,” the Republican Main Street caucus, representing the centrist House Republicans, said in a statement. “Personal politics should never again be used to trump the will of 96% of House conservatives. Any candidate for speaker must explain to us how what happened on Tuesday will never happen again.”

Jordan and Scalise are both hardline conservatives who may struggle to attract support from moderates – a fact not lost on observers after Gaetz and seven other hard-right Republicans chose to make McCarthy the first speaker ever removed by his own party.

Scalise’s hard-right views – which have even seen him linked to the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke – and his personal health could pose challenges as he seeks the gavel. Scalise, 57, walks with a cane, having survived a shooting at congressional baseball practice in 2017. He is also in treatment for multiple myeloma, an aggressive form of cancer. He has said the treatment is going well.

As Republicans weigh their options, hard-right lawmaker Andy Harris of Maryland suggested Byron Donalds as the next speaker, but it is unclear whether the Florida congressman will throw his hat in the ring. Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, chair of the Republican study committee, was named as another potential candidate.

“I didn’t volunteer to do this,” Hern told reporters on Capitol Hill. “People have asked me about looking at an alternate choice. And so I’m going around talking about this issue with other groups of people and see if their votes are there.”

Three House Republicans and Fox News host Sean Hannity have pitched a different wildcard option: elect Donald Trump as speaker. The speaker does not have to be a member of Congress, though no speaker has ever filled the role without holding a seat. But House Republican rules say anyone indicted and facing two years or more of prison time cannot hold a leadership role, which would render Trump ineligible.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Trump, who is in New York for a trial involving allegations of massive fraud at his company, said he was keeping his focus on his presidential campaign. He also denied encouraging Gaetz to push for McCarthy’s removal.

In the Senate, the Democratic majority leader, Chuck Schumer, urged the next speaker to embrace bipartisanship, even though hard-right Republicans will probably feel emboldened following McCarthy’s ouster.

“You cannot allow a small band of [Make America Great Again] extremists, which represent just a very small percentage of the views of the country, to tell the overwhelming majority of Americans what to do,” Schumer said in a floor speech on Wednesday. “Maga extremism is a poison that the House GOP has refused to confront for years, and until the mainstream House Republicans deal with this issue, chaos will continue.”