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Republicans don't have a plan B in the speaker race — yet

Kevin McCarthy has lost six votes so far. But any potential replacement would face the same problems.

Republican Kevin McCarthy gained no ground Wednesday in his increasingly quixotic quest to become House speaker. In three ballots he failed to gain the majority of the House needed, increasing his losing streak to 0-6. The bloc of about 20 far-right conservatives who had bucked the rest of the GOP the previous day held firm in their opposition, selecting a new standard-bearer in Byron Donalds of Florida. When Kat Cammack of Florida nominated McCarthy for the third time that day, she declared that “it’s Groundhog Day … again.” During the previous vote, Ken Buck of Colorado suggested that it might be time for his party to choose a new candidate given the gridlock.

It’s hard to tell just how prevalent that feeling is inside the broader caucus, which remains behind McCarthy — for now. That doesn’t mean, though, that there aren’t alternative names being floated. But the difficulties McCarthy would face as speaker presiding over an extremely slim majority apply to any alternative who could replace him. The two candidates seen as most likely to step in — Ohio’s Jim Jordan and Louisiana’s Steve Scalise — face inverse versions of the same problem, which makes it hard to see how anyone can bridge the gulf within the GOP caucus.

The prospect of Jordan’s obtaining the speaker’s gavel most likely makes the relatively moderate members of his caucus leery. Jordan rose to prominence as a bomb-throwing member of the tea party wave, determined to break up the status quo — even if it meant defaulting on the federal government’s debts. He was a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus and helped engineer the revolt against former Speaker John Boehner of Ohio. He later helped strategize with former President Donald Trump’s campaign and administration on how to overturn the results of the 2020 election. The idea that Jordan could prioritize a smoothly functioning House is so wildly out of character that the few remaining institutionalists in the party would surely block his ascent.

Scalise, on the other hand, has been the GOP whip since 2014, when The Washington Post described him as “a bridge to conservatives who have caused Boehner and McCarthy the most trouble.” But even then, The Post added, “some of the most conservative Republicans do not trust Scalise’s credentials.” And while serving as McCarthy’s deputy most of this last decade, he has managed to remain conspicuously neutral when the party has split, which could make it hard to pin him down when it comes to looming questions like “is the debt ceiling an appropriate bargaining chip?” For my part, I’m willing to bet that Scalise would say “no,” which isn’t the answer the GOP holdouts would want to hear.

As of Wednesday evening, both Jordan and Scalise say they don’t want the speaker’s job — and I can’t blame them. Why stick your neck out now, especially when McCarthy is still drawing the vast majority of your caucus’s votes? And beyond that, actually being the person in charge means having to make the decisions that for now would be falling on McCarthy’s head. As it stands, Scalise is poised to become House majority leader and Jordan is the incoming chair of the Judiciary Committee — prominent positions with far fewer intraparty headaches.

Among the other members of GOP leadership, House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik of New York is an unlikely speaker, no matter how much she might want it. The New York Times recently reported that Stefanik had already felt out moving into the whip position last year but failed to find a constituency — I doubt she’d fare much better aiming for a higher post. And besides, at least one Republican — Matt Rosendale of Montana — has said he wouldn’t vote for anyone who’s been in House leadership in the last 10 years.

There’s still room for a backbencher to fill the spot, like Paul Ryan of Wisconsin did when Boehner was forced out in 2015. Ryan, then the House Budget Committee chair and a former vice presidential nominee, wound up being the consensus choice after McCarthy’s first attempt to become speaker flamed out. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, a McCarthy ally poised to head the Financial Services Committee who served as a chief deputy whip under Boehner, sort of fits the same profile and has been named as a dark horse option. But he lacks the prominence Ryan had, and it feels unlikely that he’d be able to win over all but four members of the caucus.

The stalemate is starting to make options who had once seemed like the stuff of political fan fiction seem more feasible. Nothing in the Constitution says the House speaker needs to actually be a member of Congress, which is in part why the speaker election can take place before the representatives-elect are even sworn in. In that vein, former Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan, who left the Republican Party in 2019 before declining to run for re-election the next year, turned up on Capitol Hill on Wednesday — you know, just in case.

The stalemate is starting to make options who had once seemed like the stuff of political fan fiction seem more feasible.

Former Rep. Lee Zeldin has also been mentioned as a potential compromise candidate after a better-than-expected run for governor of New York last year. And Don Bacon of Nebraska has suggested former Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan could be a compromise whom both Democrats and Republicans could maybe support. Upton himself did little to dismiss that idea Wednesday afternoon.

For now, though, Democrats aren’t keen on doing anything to help the Republicans out of this mess. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, one of the most senior members of the House GOP caucus, threw cold water on the suggestion, as well, on Wednesday. Cole himself could wind up being the brand of conservative who might be able to unite the party — at least for a while in a sort of caretaker role.

But this is all speculation for now, as McCarthy seems unwilling to step aside, even after six failed votes. It’s entirely possible that some unforeseen option swoops in to take the mantle. Or we could still be here in the same spot a week from now, with the House paralyzed like a video game frozen on the start menu. As Republican Mike McCaul of Texas said Wednesday afternoon: “I don’t know how this ends.” And I’d be deeply suspicious of anyone who claims otherwise.