Updated October 23, 2023 at 1:08 PM ET

The search for a new House speaker is stretching into a third week, as Republicans struggle to unite behind a candidate for the top job.

The House has been without a leader and unable to conduct business since a small group of hardline Republicans ousted Rep. Kevin McCarthy earlier this month. That's why Rep. Mike Flood of Nebraska has introduced a "unity pledge." He hopes Republicans will sign the two-paragraph pledge and commit to supporting whoever the party nominates this a time.

First it looked like Rep. Steve Scalise would take McCarthy's place as House speaker, but he dropped out of the race after failing to secure enough support. Rep. Jim Jordan campaigned for the role last week, but lost a secret vote to remain his party's nominee after House Republicans rejected him on the floor three times, each by a bigger margin.

Now Republicans are trying again. And there are nine representatives vying for the gig: Jack Bergman of Michigan, Byron Donalds of Florida, Tom Emmer of Minnesota, Kevin Hern of Oklahoma, Mike Johnson of Louisiana, Dan Meuser of Pennsylvania, Gary Palmer of Alabama, Austin Scott of Georgia and Pete Sessions of Texas.

The conference will meet for a candidate forum on Monday, and is scheduled to vote to narrow down the list on Tuesday. The nominee will need 217 votes on the House floor to get the job.

There are 221 Republican members of the House, to Democrats' 212. Their slim majority leaves little room for internal disagreements, of which there are many. And the floor vote is where that process has repeatedly broken down.

Flood hopes his unity pledge will change that.

A majority party is only a majority party when it votes as a majority, Flood told Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep on Monday. He said generations of Republicans and Democrats have chosen a speaker amongst themselves and then voted in unison on the floor to elect that speaker.

"What we have now is a complete breakdown of what we've done for 200 years," he said. "And so the unity pledge simply says we're going to support the candidate for speaker that wins the majority of the votes in our conference when we get to the floor ... It's simple, but unfortunately it's necessary."

That doesn't mean he expects everyone to sign it.

Flood said while there are "well over 190 of us" who were always going to vote for the designated speaker, up to 40 representatives have not done so at one point or another since McCarthy's original campaign in January.

Still, he says he wants to see who can bring people to the table — which he says demonstrates leadership at an especially critical time, with the government just three weeks away from potentially shutting down.

"In a month we're going to expect whoever the speaker is to deliver votes for the National Defense Authorization Act or the Farm Bill," Flood explained. "If you want this job, you have to be able to show that you can move people and that is my standard."

The path ahead remains unclear

At least six of the nine speaker contenders had signaled their support for the unity pledge as of Sunday, NPR reported.

The frontrunner of the group appears to be Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, who is currently the No. 3 House Republican as its party whip.

Emmer was once seen as a conservative firebrand, earning endorsements from the likes of former Alaska. Gov. Sarah Palin and Tea Party groups in his bid for governor and Congress.

But he's taken a more pragmatic approach as a member of the House. NPR's Domenico Montanaro notes that he's earned goodwill by running the National Republican Congressional Committee and has risen through the leadership ranks by building relationships, including with Democratic colleagues on his committees.

Emmer has the backing of McCarthy but also, as Montanaro puts it, "a huge Trump problem."

Emmer didn't vote to overturn the election in 2020, nor has he endorsed the former president in the 2024 primary — meaning Trump's allies don't trust him.

Pragmatists in the party are looking to elect a leader to return to business, including funding the government and supporting Israel and (to some extent) Ukraine. But hardline Republicans seem to welcome the prospect of a shutdown, Montanaro says — a reflection of the deepening divides in the GOP and the battle over its future.

Flood acknowledges the House GOP has "a lot of problems." But he said it was able to unite behind a speaker in January and he believes it can do so again.

"If we're going to be a majority, we have to vote like a majority, and that means we have to find a candidate that can bring us together," Flood said. "And I have to think that out of 222 people, we can find somebody."

The broadcast interview was produced by David West and edited by Jan Johnson.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.



Here in Washington, House Republicans hold a candidate forum today. They hear from as many as nine lawmakers who would like to replace the ousted Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Two would-be replacements receive support from a majority of Republicans but not enough to form a majority of the House. That's the problem, and that's why Republican Congressman Mike Flood wants his colleagues to sign a unity pledge to support whoever Republicans nominate this time. Mike Flood is on the line. He's a former radio broadcaster in Nebraska, so we expect an excellent conversation. Good morning, sir.

MIKE FLOOD: Hey, good morning.

INSKEEP: What is the concept?

FLOOD: Well, you know, a majority party is only a majority party when it votes as a majority. I mean, that's as simple as it gets. And for over 200 years, we have in the Republican conference - and quite frankly, the Democratic conference - have selected a speaker among ourselves. And then we go to the floor, and we vote in unison to elect that speaker. What we have now is a complete breakdown of what we've done for 200 years. And so the unity pledge simply says, we're going to support the candidate for speaker that wins the majority of the votes in our conference when we get to the floor. It's something we've done for 200 years. It's simple, but unfortunately, it's necessary.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note that over the past 200 years, there have been different political parties and some fractured and many ballot speaker races. But you are broadly correct, of course. Here's the problem, though. You've gotten nearly all the candidates to sign this, but you would need almost all Republicans period to sign this pledge for it to be effective. Are you going to get nearly all Republicans to sign this?

FLOOD: Well, practically, I don't think so, to be honest. However, here's what I say. I'm withholding my vote until I see who brings who to the table. The Mike Floods of the world, the Brad Finstads, the people that I sit with in conference, we are the easy ones to get because we're always going to vote for the majority. There's well over 190 of us that are subscribing to this thought. There's apparently up to 40 people that have one time or the other since January not voted on the floor with the majority candidate when we get there.

And for me, my standard - and in a slim majority, my vote matters. My standard is, who can you bring to the table? Show me that Matt Gaetz will come to the table and sign the pledge. That tells me that you are someone that can demonstrate leadership, because in a month, we're going to expect whoever the speaker is to deliver votes for the NDAA - National Defense Authorization Act - or the farm bill. If you want this job, you have to be able to show that you can move people. And that is my standard. I want a leader. I want somebody that brings people to the table.

INSKEEP: I understand what you're saying when you're saying, I want to vote for a speaker candidate who can bring Matt Gaetz to the table. But doesn't that mean that Matt Gaetz gets to control the House of Representatives?

FLOOD: Well, by any stretch of the truth, he has. I mean, the reality is we need everybody to be on the same page. We need everybody to be in line together so that we can move things. That's one of the reasons I supported Jim Jordan. Jim Jordan, whether some of my colleagues like it or not, could bring people like that to the table. And if we don't have everybody at the table, we don't have a majority.

INSKEEP: Let me just ask...

FLOOD: When you have a five-seat majority...

INSKEEP: I'm sorry to interrupt.

FLOOD: ...That's what it takes.

INSKEEP: I'm sorry, Congressman, time's a little short. I just want to interrupt here a little bit to follow up on this. Paul Ryan, the former House speaker, was on CNBC the other day and referred to the eight holdouts who unseated speaker McCarthy as eight nihilists, people who stand for nothing. And he's made repeated statements that a lot of Republicans don't stand for any policy. You can't unite around a policy. They only stand for an attitude. Isn't that a fundamental problem that your party has right now?

FLOOD: There are a lot of problems we have and that would be a concern. But if we're going to be a majority, we have to vote like a majority. And that means we have to find a candidate that can bring us together. And I have to think, out of 222 people, we can find somebody.

INSKEEP: If you were to threaten to unite with Democrats, wouldn't that bring some Republicans on board?

FLOOD: Well, people in November elected a majority of Republicans to lead the House of Representatives. I think it's incumbent upon us to act as a majority and find a speaker that does bring us together. And by the way, in January, when Kevin McCarthy got there, we did a lot of that until the wheels fell off. So we were able to do that.

INSKEEP: Congressman Mike Flood of Nebraska. It's a pleasure to talk with you this morning. Thank you so much.

FLOOD: Yes. Have a good day.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRAMEWORKS' "DELPHINA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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