House Republicans live in a world where math is upside down.
In this fantasy land, five can be as powerful as 217; eight as big as 433; and, in a new twist this past week, 99 out of 223 can somehow be turned into a strong majority.
This latest example came Friday, when Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) claimed the nomination for GOP House speaker, despite a clear majority of the full House not wanting him to be their pick.
On Wednesday, Jordan lost the nomination, running a competitive race but only getting 99 votes — about 44 percent of the 223 ballots cast. He offered a tepid endorsement, at best, to the winner, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.), and then sat back as his allies sabotaged the front-runner.
They told Scalise that they would re-create the drama of January when Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) failed on the first 14 ballots because about 20 hard-right conservatives voted for someone else, forcing him to make key concessions until they let him win on the 15th roll call.
After enduring about 30 hours of this torture, Scalise said no thanks. He will stay put as majority leader and watch as Jordan now faces the same struggles.
Before Friday’s new vote, Jordan’s allies, including McCarthy, who was deposed earlier this month, hyped his candidacy enough that expectations were set for him to blow past Scalise’s initial tally. Instead, a last-minute entrant, Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga.), a backbencher focused on national security issues who never sought a leadership post, embarrassed Jordan with a strong second-place showing.
Jordan received only 124 votes, claiming about 10 of the protest votes from Wednesday that went to write-in candidates or simply stated “present.” He flipped only about 15 of Scalise’s initial supporters. In a second secret ballot that asked Republicans how they would vote in the required public roll call for speaker, 55 doubled down and said they would not support Jordan.
This sets up the same conundrum that felled McCarthy and prompted Scalise to abandon the race: With 221 on their side, Republicans have just four votes to spare if all 212 Democrats vote the other way.
Jordan’s allies have signaled a political-roughshod campaign that will dare his opponents to vote against the far-right Republican in the public, alphabetical roll call on the House floor. They hope they will crumble from fear of retribution from conservative primary voters.
“I think there’s a clear path to get him to 217. But as long as you’re doing secret ballots, it’s a lot harder to get 217. We’ve got to break cover,” Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.), a leader of a mainstream conservative caucus, told reporters Friday.
But Jordan’s staunchest opponents warned that a pressure campaign would backfire. “Look, when you’re doing it in a positive way, you can usually get a lot,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), a staunch Scalise backer, told reporters.
Diaz-Balart, who said he would never vote for Jordan, said it would be an arrogant mistake to ignore the adage about catching more flies with honey than vinegar.
“Usually you do it at your own peril,” he said.
After nine months of watching their hard-right flank essentially extort McCarthy, this band of establishment Republicans has declared that it’s time to stop rewarding the hostage-takers. Instead of giving in to Jordan, they want to adopt the very same strategy: minority-rule tactics to sabotage him.
If as few as five refuse to back Jordan, he can’t win. That’s what happened on multiple key procedural votes last month, when just five Republicans opposed McCarthy’s defense spending bill and voted against the parliamentary vote, sabotaging the legislation.
When the hard right decided to take down McCarthy, those Republicans used the obscure motion to vacate that served as a vote of no confidence. As is custom in votes for speaker, all Democrats voted against the GOP option. Then eight Republicans effectively determined for the rest of the House — currently at 433 members because of two vacancies — that McCarthy would no longer be speaker by siding with Democrats.
Johnson, normally one of the more reserved and earnest lawmakers, proposed forcing the full House to vote early in the week even if Jordan is expected to lose. They would then go through round after round after round, re-creating the chaotic January scene to ramp up the pressure on Diaz-Balart’s group.
“Jim Jordan should continue this fight all the way through,” Rep. Chip Roy (R-Tex.) said on Fox News on Friday evening.
That high-risk scenario has some Jordan supporters urging restraint, including Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), who has previously called for no floor vote until the outcome is certain.
“Right now, we just need cool heads and logic to prevail. I think that can occur,” Donalds said Friday.
Jordan’s opponents view the Johnson-Roy approach as another act of deceit.
Before Scalise’s victory Wednesday, Roy tried to change rules so that the nominee would not go to a full vote in the House until securing 217 Republican votes.
Adopting the look and style of a Hollywood movie mad scientist, Roy regularly plots complex strategies, focused on obscure rules and confounding processes. This time, he wanted to force many ballots in the speaker vote: the first involving both candidates, then the winner would go through more grilling and another secret ballot or two, before finally a public roll call in front of all his GOP colleagues.
It seemed designed to deny Scalise, or perhaps anyone other than Jordan, the requisite support to win — which is why Roy’s proposal got trounced by almost 50 votes.
Scalise then won the actual vote, 113-99, but rather than accepting the humiliating defeat, Roy declared he would vote only for Jordan.
A dozen Jordan backers quickly declared they would never vote for Scalise, while about a dozen more lurked in the backdrop, as well as a half-dozen or so moderates who remained loyal to McCarthy.
Pretty quickly, Scalise’s supporters — who include most traditional conservatives on the Armed Services and Appropriations committees — felt that Jordan had reverted back to his original form. In his first dozen years, before McCarthy brought him into his inner circle, Jordan served as the rabble-rouser, threatening to expel speakers and trying to take down bipartisan, must-pass legislation.
Jordan did not offer Scalise an endorsement and left the closed-door meeting without talking to the hundred or more reporters outside the room.
His aides sent word that he offered to give a nominating speech on Scalise’s behalf, but Scalise supporters reported that the offer required him to only stand for one ballot and, if he failed, turn around and nominate Jordan on the next ballot.
Jordan’s supporters denied any double-dealing. “He has said in the most plain, possible English to the conference, entirely wide, that he would support Steve,” Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) told reporters after a Thursday meeting with Scalise.
Still, Mast acknowledged that his plan to support Scalise after he won “just ran into some things” and that he was still with Jordan.
Once Scalise withdrew on Thursday evening, Jordan jumped back into the race anew, this time as the front-runner.
In public, Jordan’s opponents have walked a careful line to avoid accusing him of treachery.
Instead, they take him at his word that he truly did support Scalise. But they fault the former national collegiate champion wrestler, given his mythological clout within far-right circles, for being weak.
“There’s two alternatives: Either you lied, or you couldn’t deliver,” Diaz-Balart said. “I’ve never been lied to, I’ve never been lied to by him. So therefore, to me, it’s got to be the other alternative, which is he has not been able to deliver on a relatively simple thing.”
So now the Diaz-Balart wing plans to force Jordan to swallow some of the same medicine he has delivered throughout the years.
All these minority-rule moments turn the tables on a GOP conference that used to assert the “Hastert rule,” an unofficial standard often imposed by J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), the House speaker from 1999 into 2007. It said legislation that did not have the support of “the majority of the majority” would not get a vote on the House floor.
Now, the majority of the majority no longer rules, given that both McCarthy and Scalise had such support, as Jordan now does.
Instead, a small bloc — sometimes five, sometimes eight, sometimes 20, perhaps 99 — has turned the math upside down.
With the new “Jordan rule,” it’s the minority of the majority that matters most.