Republicans in a divided House selected and then quickly rejected another of their nominees for speaker on Tuesday and rushed to name a fourth, extending an extraordinary three-week impasse that has left Congress leaderless and paralyzed.
Representative Mike Johnson, Republican of Louisiana, emerged Tuesday night as the latest candidate for the post after Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the No. 3 Republican in the House, dropped his bid just hours after securing the nomination. Emmer’s downfall followed a swift backlash from the right, including former President Donald J. Trump, that left his candidacy in shambles.
It was not clear whether Mr. Johnson could do better, as dozens of House Republicans indicated they were not inclined to support him – or any candidate running.
Mr. Johnson received 129 votes in the closed-door ballot, but 44 Republicans voted for absentee candidates, including 43 votes for ousted President Kevin McCarthy, who many see as unfairly ousted.
A vote is underway on whether Republicans would endorse Mr. Johnson.
Mr. Emer’s surprise exit signaled that Republicans are as far from resolving their impasse as ever. That made Mr. Emer the third Republican this month to be tapped to lead the party, only for his bid to collapse in a seemingly endless cycle of GOP grievances, personality clashes and ideological splits.
Republicans have now managed to oust all three of their top leaders in the past few weeks. The chamber has been frozen for much of the month as Republicans wrangle over who should be in charge, even as wars rage abroad and a government shutdown looms.
Late Tuesday afternoon, they went back to the drawing board. For the second night in a row, Republicans huddled behind closed doors to hear from potential candidates and choose a candidate. They were ready to come up for a vote in the full House as soon as Wednesday if someone could muster a majority, but it remained unclear whether that was possible amid the current infighting.
“It’s a pretty sad commentary on governance right now,” said Representative Steve Womack of Arkansas, adding: “The American public cannot look at this and have reasonable confidence that this conference can be managed. That’s sad. I’m sad. My heart is broken.”
Tuesday’s meltdown was the latest evidence of seemingly endless Republican dysfunction. Mr. Emmer began the day with a narrow victory, winning the internal party nomination contest by 117 votes to 97 against Mr. Johnson. But the margin reflected that House Republicans are still deeply at odds.
Then, immediately after Mr. Emer’s nomination, about two dozen right-wing Republicans indicated they would not vote for him, denying him the majority he would need to succeed on a vote in the full House. And as he met with those slow to win them over, the former president issued a scathing statement on social media expressing fierce opposition to Mr Emmer, calling him a “globalist RINO” – short for “republican in name only” – whose height would be ” tragic mistake”.
“I have many wonderful friends who want to be Speaker of the House, and some are really great warriors,” Trump wrote on Truth Social. “RINO Tom Emmer, who I don’t know well, is not one of them. He never respected the power of Trump’s support, nor the breadth and scope of MAG – MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
Most of those opposed to Mr. Emmer were members of the ultraconservative House Freedom Caucus and loyal to Mr. Trump. Any candidate for president can only lose a few votes and still win the presidency because Republicans have such a small majority in the House.
Just hours later, Mr. Emmer told Republicans in a closed-door meeting that he was withdrawing his bid, according to a person familiar with his decision who disclosed the private discussion on condition of anonymity. He then quickly left the room, avoiding questions from the press.
As of Tuesday night, five more Republicans, none of whom have a national profile, were vying for the nomination. Mr. Johnson won after multiple rounds of voting, defeating Representative Byron Donalds of Florida, a member of the Freedom Caucus.
Mr. Johnson, 51, is a lawyer who is a former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee.
An evangelical Christian, Mr. Johnson was the architect of Republican objections to confirming Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory on Jan. 6, 2021. A member of the Judiciary Committee, he is an ally and supporter of his embattled chairman, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, and has considered moving forward with with his own offer to be the speaker after Mr. Jordan failed.
“He’s in a unique position to lose 30 votes on both sides of the conference,” Representative Thomas Massie of Kentucky said of Mr. Johnson before the vote. “No one likes Mike Johnson. He is principled. He is moral. But I think Jordan has a better chance of getting to 217 than Mike.”
The Republican disarray underscored the new ethos sweeping the GOP: Dozens of members have abandoned the old norms of honoring the party’s internal election winners, and instead operate according to their individual preferences, ideologies and loyalties.
Some far-right Republicans consider themselves a separate political party from their more mainstream, business-oriented counterparts, whom they accuse of being in “uniparty” with the Democrats.
The House of Representatives has been in a state of uncertainty and chaos since October 3, when rebels forced a vote to remove Mr. McCarthy as president. Eight Republicans supported the move along with Democrats, who remained united behind their leader, Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York. Republicans rejected two previous winners in a closed-door nomination process — Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio — before settling on Mr. Emmer.
Some on the right who oppose Mr. Emmer have cited his vote to codify federal protections for same-sex couples. Others railed against Mr. Emer’s vote in favor of a spending freeze bill proposed by Mr. McCarthy, the speaker at the time, to prevent a government shutdown. Others said he was not loyal enough to Mr. Trump because he voted to confirm the results of the 2020 election, which was won by President Biden.
Mr. Emmer tried to appease Mr. Trump by calling him over the weekend and praising him, according to the former president. But Mr. Trump made it clear that they did not win him over.
“I believe he’s learned his lesson now because he’s saying he’s all the way for Trump, but who can be sure?” Mr. Trump wrote. “Did he change just because it’s necessary to win? The Republican Party can’t take that chance because that’s not where the voters are in America. Voting for a globalist RINO like Tom Emmer would be a tragic mistake!”
Old rivalries also helped scuttle Mr Emmer’s bid for speaker. Feelings remained raw over the contentious race for his current seat against Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana.
“I cannot agree with putting one of the most moderate members of the entire Republican conference in the speaker’s chair,” Mr. Banks said. “It betrays the conservative values I came to fight for.”
The immediate free-for-all left more mainstream party members angry.
“Our conference was essentially at war with itself,” said Representative Brandon Williams of New York, who represents the district won by President Biden. He called the situation “disheartening” and reminiscent of the movie “Groundhog Day”.
“Most of the country is worried about inflation, what they’re experiencing in the grocery store, and they’d like to see Congress stand up and act like adults,” Mr. Williams said.
Catie Edmondson, Robert Jimison and Kayla Guo contributed to the reporting.