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Politics & Government

GOP Conference Set To Decide Party's Nominee For House Speaker

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's Election Day in Congress. Republicans will choose their nominee to succeed John Boehner as speaker of the House. Then, in three weeks, the entire House of Representatives will vote. But since Republicans control the House, it will be the Republican choice who takes the speaker's chair. From the beginning, there's been a clear Republican front-runner, the second-in-command, Kevin McCarthy of California. But late yesterday, a group of about 40 Republicans who call themselves the House Freedom Caucus, endorsed someone else, Florida Congressman Daniel Webster. The Freedom Caucus grew out of the Tea Party movement. Raul Labrador of Idaho is a member. I spoke to him just before his group snubbed McCarthy in favor of Daniel Webster, and he signaled that was just what they were going to do.

RAUL LABRADOR: He's a wonderful man. He was the speaker of the Florida House. He was also the Senate majority leader of the Florida Senate. And he's known nationwide for his style of leadership that is very bottom-up instead of top-down. He believes in empowering the members, not the speaker's office. And that's something that's really appealing to a lot of us.

MONTAGNE: And that is speaking of a candidate, Daniel Webster, for the speaker's job. For more, let's bring in NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Good morning.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Now, how unexpected is this rebellion?

DAVIS: It is not at all unexpected, to the extent that most of the members of this group - of the House Freedom Caucus - in the days leading up to this endorsement had already publicly been on record for being very critical of Kevin McCarthy and suggesting that he was probably not going to be their candidate. This is the same group of lawmakers that were agitating for John Boehner to resign. They had offered the motion to vacate the chair, which was the resolution they were going to put forward on the floor to try and throw him out, before Boehner made the decision himself to resign at the end of the month. So, you know, their frustration is very well-known. And as long as it's something that party leaders sort of want to support - this is the group of lawmakers that has most actively been against whatever the party wants to do. It is probably seen as the more - the farthest right of the party and probably the most frustrated.

MONTAGNE: And - which is one obvious reason, that frustration, why Speaker Boehner's second-in-command - again, that's Kevin McCarthy - is not attractive to this group. Here's how Congressman Labrador put it to me yesterday.

LABRADOR: Just giving the next person in line the opportunity to lead, who has already had an opportunity to be a leader here for the last five to six years and nothing has changed under his leadership, why would we give him an opportunity to lead?

MONTAGNE: How much has some of Kevin McCarthy's recent comments hurt him? And I'm thinking in particular of his statement that seemed to link the Benghazi hearings to a political effort to actually hurt Hillary Clinton. He's taken that back since then, but she's using it in ads and is making hay with it. Is that the sort of thing that has also hurt McCarthy?

LABRADOR: Well, there's - the question is whether he's ready for prime time. And that really made a case that he's not. But I want to be really clear about this. The only people who have politicized this issue are the Democrats, but that was not helpful. Now, to his credit, Kevin has apologized for that. He has explained what he meant. But the real issue is that you can't have too many gaffes like that because you shouldn't be going back every single time trying to explain what you really meant or else you're not going to be a good leader for the Republican Party.

MONTAGNE: Again, that's House Freedom Caucus member Raul Labrador. And, Susan, it's only 40 votes or so. Will that really make that much of a difference? I mean, won't Kevin McCarthy still end up winning the Republican nomination?

DAVIS: Yes, that is entirely what's expected. But here's what to look for today. So today's just the nomination contest. Think of it like a primary election before the general election. And in this primary election, there are 247 votes. And the number he's going to need on the floor are 218 votes. So the thing to look for today is, see how close Kevin McCarthy gets to 218. If he comes out of this election with 200 votes or 210 votes, he's going to be in a very good position when the whole House votes at the end of the month. If he - the farther away he is from that number, the harder it is - he's going to have - to get to 218 on October 29.

MONTAGNE: OK, but there - also - to even complicate this further (laughter)...

DAVIS: (Laughter).

MONTAGNE: Or actually, make it more interesting, if you will, another Tea Party candidate who has shown - showed some momentum recently, Jason Chaffetz of Utah. When it goes to the full House of Republicans and Democrats of the end of the month, as you say, what happens if Republicans are still divided on their choice? I mean, is it - could there be an upset?

DAVIS: That's a great question. And what's so interesting about this is we're kind of in uncharted territory. There is no modern precedent in Congress for something like this to happen. I think the last time that they had to go through this it was, like, in the 1920s, and the rules are just entirely different now. So if they can't get there, what they basically have to do is they literally start from the top again. And the way that they elect a speaker is they just keep the roll going until one nominee can get to 218. Now, the Freedom Caucus guys - what's even more interesting is when you talk to these lawmakers, they kind of acknowledge that none of their guys can win. They know they don't - no member of the Freedom Caucus has the support it would take to get to 218. So I think when you talk to them, what they're trying to say is, we're enough of a powerful block that we can't be the next speaker, but we can decide who the next speaker is. And we can vote as a block to extract some concessions from the new leadership to make us feel more included, to have a seat at the table and maybe change the way party rules operate in order to give more power sort of flowing downstream than coming directly out of the speaker's office.

MONTAGNE: All right, we'll watch this space. NPR's congressional correspondent Susan Davis, thanks very much.

DAVIS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.