Steve Scalise emerges as speaker frontrunner after House GOP chaos

The Republican nominee for the speakership will still need to corral his party's various factions to take over the House.

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Rep. Steve Scalise cleared his first hurdle Wednesday to becoming the next House speaker, winning a preliminary private vote of House Republicans.

But Scalise was unable to move to a final vote on the matter, prolonging a debilitating bout of dysfunction among Republicans in Congress. Republicans remain mired in disagreement as war rages in Israel and as another government shutdown looms here at home.

To win the speakership, Scalise will need to get 217 votes — a majority of all the House members — in a public election in the House chamber. It's unclear when that vote will happen.

Who is Steve Scalise?

Scalise, 58, is a Republican from Louisiana.

He has been a prominent but low-key member of Republican leadership in the House for the past 10 years, serving as House majority leader — the GOP’s second in command — since January. Scalise came to Congress in 2008 and was a member of the Louisiana legislature for 12 years before that.

In 2017, Scalia nearly lost his life when he and three others were shot by a left-wing extremist at a congressional baseball team practice.

More recently, Scalise was diagnosed in August with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer. He described it as “very treatable” and said he planned to keep working.

House Majority Leader Steve Scalise.
House Majority Leader Steve Scalise. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque) (Kevin Lamarque / reuters)

Very conservative but not a bomb thrower

Scalise represents the eastern half of the New Orleans suburbs, which happens to be the most Republican district in Louisiana. He has shaped his political profile to suit such a deep-red group of voters.

Over the past few years, that has meant taking stands that disturb Democrats and independents, such as voting to decertify the 2020 election results on Jan. 6, 2021, in the hours after a mob of Donald Trump supporters assaulted the U.S. Capitol.

Scalise labeled the Jan. 6 riot an act of “domestic terrorism” but also continued for months to equivocate when asked to refute the lie that the 2020 election was stolen.

But Scalise is also a fairly conventional House member whose formative experiences have come via a traditional route to leadership. He came up through an insider-driven process in the House, building relationships and a political operation.

Scalise spent the past nine years as the Republican whip, meaning that his main job as a member of leadership was to corral Republican support on every single vote of consequence. That experience came in handy when it was time to run for the top leadership job in the House.

His main rival for the job was Rep. Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican who rose to prominence through frequent appearances on cable news.

In recent years, Jordan has become more savvy at the inside game, aligning more closely with the previous speaker, Kevin McCarthy, to gain a perch as chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee. Jordan has become a master of using committee hearings to push a political message into right-wing media circles.

Rep. Jim Jordan with reporters inside the Capitol.
Rep. Jim Jordan. (Reuters/Leah Millis) (Leah Millis / reuters)

How we got here

Former President Donald Trump endorsed Jordan, but Scalise’s years of whipping votes helped him come out on top of Jordan in the first vote held by House Republicans, in a private meeting Wednesday around lunchtime.

Scalise prevailed in that vote by a final tally of 113-99, according to multiple reports that emerged from the closed-door meeting inside the Capitol complex.

A vote in the full House was initially planned for a few hours later, but it quickly became evident that many House Republicans did not want to vote so soon. As a result, Scalise was far from securing the number of votes needed to win the speakership.

By midafternoon, Jordan was telling those who had supported him that he would vote for Scalise and had offered to make a speech for Scalise on the House floor.

Scalise can only afford to lose four Republican votes, out of a total of 221. It is that tiny margin for error that pushed the last leadership election in January to go 15 rounds, the longest leadership vote in over a century.

McCarthy, a California Republican, won that marathon, but he made numerous concessions to hard-line Republicans to get over the finish line. One change he agreed to made it easier for his own members to call a vote to remove him.

Last week, a small group of eight House Republicans joined with all Democrats to remove McCarthy, with no plan for what came afterward.