Reps. Kevin McCarthy, Jim Jordan and Steve Scalise have worked together — and against each other — for nearly 16 years.
Thrown together in the Capitol at almost the same time, McCarthy (R-Calif.) has sometimes worked closely with Scalise (R-La.) to pass legislation, while other times they deeply distrusted one another. In their first 12 years serving together, McCarthy fought furiously with Jordan as the Ohio Republican repeatedly tried to shoot down McCarthy’s rising-star status — only to forge a partnership four years ago that helped McCarthy secure the speaker’s gavel in January.
Now, this trio of nine-term lawmakers are in a public clash to determine the direction of the House GOP. With McCarthy ousted as speaker last week, Jordan and Scalise, the majority leader, made pitches Tuesday to the Republican conference as they try to win the nomination for speaker in a closed, secret ballot slated for Wednesday.
And in one final move complicating the others’ ambitions, McCarthy tried early Monday to reboot another bid for speaker before, more than 30 hours later, finally saying he didn’t want to be nominated.
The assumption from Scalise allies is that McCarthy is attempting to dent Scalise’s support among the few dozen Republicans from swing districts. This crowd tends to view the Donald-Trump-loving Jordan with political horror, but most remain loyal to the now ex-speaker.
Regardless of his intentions, McCarthy’s move also undermines Jordan’s case that he can best unite all wings of the very fractured House Republican Conference. Veteran GOP lawmakers now grasp for adages to explain their deep divisions.
“Friends may come and friends may go, but enemies accumulate,” Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a Jordan backer who has served 21 years, told reporters Monday evening.
Jordan and McCarthy arrived in Washington in January 2007 having been part of a tiny class of House GOP freshmen in the wake of the Democratic midterm landslide of 2006. Scalise came along a little more than a year later, winning an early 2008 special election.
Those were bleak times for GOP newcomers, buried in the minority heading into an election that would leave them historically deep in the minority. That crew of barely a dozen first-term Republicans, while not super-friendly, did not lack for ambition, a crowd that included a future senator, a future governor and a future presidential candidate.
But a handful of those new Republicans set out to dominate the future of the conservative cause within the House GOP, particularly McCarthy, Jordan and Scalise. Each came to represent a key wing of the party.
McCarthy, now 58, was the youthful Californian who quoted Ronald Reagan but also courted his state’s tech and media industries, trying to diversify the party’s reach. Scalise, now 58, hailed from the Deep South, where the GOP came to dominate in the late 20th century blending Christian conservatism with an anti-tax/pro-business ethos.
And Jordan, now 59, built his brand around Midwestern, hard-right populism, preaching the gospel of the left-behind men of closed auto plants and steel mills.
“All three of them grew up in what I’d call ‘Boehner World,’” Issa said, noting their first terms coincided with John A. Boehner’s first stint as GOP leader.
McCarthy stood head and shoulders above the rest of his class, a political insider who worked with College Republicans in the 1990s and served as a top aide to onetime House Ways and Means chair Bill Thomas (R-Calif.). Once he won his 2006 primary to succeed Thomas, McCarthy bolted around the country to other districts to try to help elect Republicans.
He became fast friends with rising GOP stars including Reps. Eric Cantor (Va.) and Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), forming a self-declared “Young Guns” fundraising operation. Boehner embraced McCarthy, while Cantor, after being elevated to minority whip in 2009, appointed McCarthy his chief deputy.
When Republicans swept into power after the 2010 midterms, McCarthy won the No. 3 leadership post, majority whip, the fastest climb ever to such a powerful post.
Jordan received none of that preferential treatment and always felt like an outcast with his fellow Ohioan Boehner. He won the chairmanship of the most conservative caucus, the Republican Study Committee, and he turned it into a corner of opposition to leadership.
Scalise bided his time and then, in late 2012, won an upset victory to succeed Jordan as RSC chair over more ideological conservatives, in part by using a strategy to grow the group’s membership.
This irked Jordan and other far-right conservatives, who were even more disappointed when Scalise fired their top RSC staffer over accusations of insubordination against fellow conservatives. Jordan begrudgingly supported the dismissal in public, but he repeatedly called the aide “a good guy.”
When Cantor lost his primary in 2014, McCarthy faced token opposition from a Jordan ally to move up to majority leader, while Scalise jumped into the race to be majority whip. Jordan’s wing of the conference mounted an anyone-but-Scalise effort, supporting either of the other two challengers. That included another Class of 2006 Republican, Peter J. Roskam (R-Ill.), who served as McCarthy’s handpicked chief deputy whip.
But Scalise used his sprawling support among the Southern bloc to win a relatively easy first-ballot victory.
Disgruntled, Jordan led the effort to secede from the RSC and formed a breakaway group of the 35 to 40 most conservative of conservatives, dubbed the House Freedom Caucus.
They drove Boehner politically mad during his final year in office, threatening to use the obscure motion that far-right Republicans deployed last week to oust McCarthy. Rather than put the House through a tumultuous vote, Boehner resigned in October 2015.
At that point, McCarthy and Scalise retained a solid working relationship and, in tandem, worked to move up the leadership ladder. But Jordan struck back at his longtime cohorts.
Despite McCarthy’s overwhelming support within the GOP conference, Jordan made clear a large enough group of Freedom Caucus members would deny him the votes to become speaker. Jordan’s contingent also rallied support around a conservative alternative to Scalise, then-Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), for majority leader.
Once McCarthy realized he would lose the floor vote, he stood down in his bid for speaker, which also blocked a likely Scalise victory to move up to the No. 2 post.
Jordan had defeated both of his foes.
Issa and others who know the taciturn Jordan suggest that Boehner, Cantor and McCarthy could have done a better job of working with him rather than demeaning him.
“Let’s just say he was not treated well by his fellow Ohioan who, you know, used terms like ‘knucklehead’ and so on,” Issa said.
Roskam, whose relations with McCarthy grew frosty after the 2014 race, said he never felt Jordan was deceitful toward him when he had to whip votes, that he was honest and, if he was going to oppose leadership, would explain exactly how it would go down.
He found Scalise to be gracious and honest after Roskam lost to him. “They were refreshingly candid in their views and honest interlocutors in the Capitol,” Roskam, who retired at the end of 2018, said in an interview. “I think it bodes well for new leadership.”
While Jordan’s hard-edge populism left him tilting at windmills his first decade in Congress, the Trump presidency changed the party’s arc and lifted Jordan into powerful circles he had never seen.
He kept clashing with the new speaker, Ryan, the epitome of Reagan-Bush Republicanism, and helped drive him to announce his retirement plans in the spring of 2018, setting up a seven-month race to succeed Ryan as speaker.
While most assumed McCarthy was the clear front-runner, Scalise had just gained immense attention by surviving a shooting in 2017 and rehabilitating himself to return that fall. If the GOP held the majority in the 2018 midterms, maybe McCarthy would face the same hurdle of not getting Jordan’s support and lose on the House floor.
Or maybe it was time to get a fresh start with a new leader if Republicans lost control of the House — someone who didn’t come from the Boehner-Cantor line.
This talk infuriated McCarthy, severing the relationship, even after Scalise denied attending a Washington steakhouse dinner to plot a speaker bid.
“I’ve had it,” McCarthy told Scalise, according to the 2019 book “The Hill To Die On,” by Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer. “I’ve been on leadership teams where the top two leaders don’t get along, and I won’t do it again.”
When Republicans lost the majority, Scalise backed down and ran unopposed for the No. 2 post, minority whip, but Jordan formally challenged McCarthy in a bid for minority leader that tried to paint the genial Californian as out of step with Trumpian orthodoxy.
“I think we have to match the president’s intensity on changing this town as we move forward,” Jordan told CNN in early November 2018.
McCarthy won easily, 159-43, but rather than take Boehner’s approach toward Jordan, he did the opposite. He brokered peace, giving Jordan the top post on the Oversight Committee, naming him to the Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Trump in 2019, and handing him the top post on the Judiciary Committee in 2020.
When Republicans gathered in Baltimore for a policy retreat in September 2019, Jordan stood next to McCarthy on the podium during the opening news conference.
“He’s standing next to me now instead of shooting at me,” McCarthy said during an interview, explaining his long-game strategy.
By early January, as Republicans claimed the majority and McCarthy struggled to get the simple majority he needed to become speaker, Jordan and Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.) worked harder than anyone to nail down the last votes on 15 ballots.
McHenry, who is now acting speaker pro tempore, had his own falling-out with Scalise in 2018, for whom he had served as chief deputy whip. In the months that followed this year’s speaker vote fest, McHenry served as McCarthy’s top lieutenant. McCarthy turned to McHenry to negotiate a spring debt-and-budget deal with White House officials and again last month on government funding plans.
Jordan stayed over at the Judiciary Committee focused on leading investigations into President Biden, all blessed by McCarthy.
Meanwhile, one floor directly above the speaker’s office, Scalise did his own thing as well, managing the committee chairs and timing votes on legislation that largely had no chance of getting through the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The tension has built all year. McCarthy’s allies whispered Scalise wasn’t loyal enough, while Scalise’s allies whispered back that the speaker didn’t trust the elected leadership team to handle the thorniest issues.
In September, as McCarthy kept losing procedural votes, Scalise was home in Louisiana undergoing treatment for blood cancer, clear of the mess that was boiling at the Capitol.
Now, 10 years after they first clashed over the direction of the RSC, Scalise and Jordan are poised to clash again Wednesday in the secret vote. McCarthy has waded into the contest with his own interests leading the way, possibly hurting Scalise.
And no one knows if any of these Republicans can get to the floor and win the requisite 217 votes from their side of the aisle.
Will there be a speaker by the end of the week?
“Inshallah,” said the Lebanese American Issa, invoking an Arabic phrase. “If God wills it.”