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Several GOP lawmakers are now vying for speaker — the top job in the House

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Back here in Washington, D.C., House Republicans are expected to pick their latest nominee for speaker today, 2 1/2 weeks after Kevin McCarthy was ousted from the speaker's chair. The GOP conference is hosting a series of closed-door votes to whittle down the candidate pool. Two Republicans, Steve Scalise and Jim Jordan, already failed to collect enough support to take the gavel. Now eight other men - and they are all men - made their case to colleagues during a forum last night. To get a sense of what those conversations might be like in there and what the members are evaluating, we called Brendan Buck. He worked for two previous GOP House Speakers, Paul Ryan and John Boehner. Good morning.

BRENDAN BUCK: Good morning.

MARTIN: So after last night's meeting, do you have any sense that there's now a favorite among these candidates?

BUCK: Well, I think there's certainly a favorite, Tom Emmer of Minnesota, who's currently the majority whip. But I would say that's a pretty weak favorite. He's been around a little while, but he's not necessarily the perfect fit. So it's hard to have any real confidence that any of these people is going to get the 217 votes they need this week.

MARTIN: And you remember that Tom Emmer, along with Austin Scott, they're the only two of the candidates who voted to certify Joe Biden's 2020 election win. What is your sense of that? Does that put them at an advantage or at a disadvantage?

BUCK: I don't know that it's going to matter a whole lot, but it tells you - the fact that only two of them did, it tells you sort of how far right this conference has gone. There is one member, Ken Buck of Colorado, who withheld his vote for Jim Jordan last time just based on that issue alone. So if it is one of these folks who didn't certify, you could see him blocking him. But I don't think that is the - one of the central questions that members are asking the candidates.

MARTIN: And what are the central questions that they're asking the candidates?

BUCK: I mean, the pitches that most of these candidates are making - and it's what members want to hear - is how they're going to decentralize power. There is a strong sense in the Republican conference that a lot of their woes come from an overbearing speaker who is calling all of the shots and not letting members do their thing. I personally think that's misguided, and a lot of the problems that we have are a refusal to accept some of the realities that come with governing, but all of them are talking about how they're going to empower individual members. They're going to empower the committees to work and be a little more hands off. The reality is not - the pitches that these candidates are making are not all that different from one another. The joke has been that these people are all pretty generic candidates, and the reality is their pitches are pretty generic, as well.

MARTIN: You know, that's interesting because that was - I mean, if people remember now, you know, in ancient history, when Nancy Pelosi's last sort of stint as speaker, there was sort of a progressive wing in the Democrats who made the same argument that there needed to be, you know, some decentralization of sort of - power there. So it's just interesting to hear it play out on the other side. Speaking of the Democrats, is there any chance Republicans would give Democrats some concessions in order to win any of their votes? And how would that play?

BUCK: You know, we flirted with that last week, of course, where it felt like we had hit rock bottom after Jim Jordan was failure - failed. But these members don't seem to think we're at rock bottom yet. So I still hold out the potential for there to be some type of coalition to empower Patrick McHenry, who is currently the speaker pro tem, who's in the acting role of speaker. That clearly set off a lot of Republicans. They don't like the idea of relying on Democrats for anything. So I think we are going to have to run into a few more dead ends before we get there. I don't know that Democrats are really going to get anything other than potentially just having Patrick McHenry in charge, someone that they probably respect. But as we saw from last week, that's going to be a very unpopular move in the Republican conference. So they're going to resist that until they absolutely have to.

MARTIN: And is there any - is there angst about the fact that the government basically - or that Congress is basically at a standstill because of this leadership vacuum? I mean, does that - is that a priority?

BUCK: It is a real factor, and it may be one of the things that help move us along this week. There is real fatigue. Members are very tired of doing this. However, I don't know that there is the urgency that demands they do something this week. These members can be very myopic. They tend to believe that whatever they are working on, choosing their next leader is the most important thing that they can possibly be doing. So I don't know that it's necessarily enough to break it, but it is a factor. I think they want to move on with things. They know that there's a government funding deadline in just about three weeks. They know that there are issues with Israel and Ukraine that need to be dealt with. It may move us along, but I don't know that it's going to necessarily guarantee you a break through the stalemate this week.

MARTIN: Just briefly, if you can, of the 221 House Republicans, 33 are women. I was just wondering why you think there are no women among the speaker candidates.

BUCK: It's a real good question. And I imagine if this - if there is a failure this time around, which is potentially likely, we could see a woman emerge, maybe in Elise Stefanik from New York.

MARTIN: That is Republican strategist Brendan Buck. And as we mentioned, he's worked for two previous GOP House speakers. Mr. Buck, thanks so much for talking to us.

BUCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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