WASHINGTON — House conservatives — a large enough voting bloc to influence the outcome of GOP leadership elections — grilled candidates for speaker behind closed doors Tuesday evening.
But after more than two hours, they weren't able to come to a decision on who they will endorse — if anyone at all.
Although conservatives have pushed for Speaker John Boehner to step down for years, they have yet to capitalize on getting their wish fulfilled. None of the rising conservative stars ended up mounting a bid for speaker, and they've so far have been unable to coalesce around any of the announced candidates, despite an effort to learn from the past and avoid internal divisions.
Asked if conservatives would be able to vote as a bloc, Rep. Steve King of Iowa replied, "I think that's going to be difficult. I don't know if unity will be there."
Rep. Mark Meadows of North Carolina added, "I don't know that they would vote as a bloc right now. But at this point, there are still at least 40 people who are uncommitted as to who they are going to support."
Hosted by the House Freedom Caucus, Tea Party Caucus, House Liberty Caucus, and Conservative Opportunity Society, the meeting provided attendees an opportunity to interview the three candidates for speaker: Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Rep. Daniel Webster of Florida, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah.
McCarthy is expected to have the majority of the GOP conference votes needed to become the nominee in closed-door meeting on Thursday, but it remains unclear if he has the 218 votes needed to become speaker when the entire chamber votes on Oct. 29. Attendees at the meeting said they didn't think any of the candidates had 218 voters needed to avoid a floor fight as of now.
Coming out of the meeting at the Capitol Hill Club, Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas said McCarthy made the case that he wasn't what some conservatives have labeled him.
"I'm not John Boehner," Farenthold said, describing McCarthy's pitch. "I'm going to run things differently. I'm my own man."
McCarthy, who members said made a "compelling case," left the building through a side door after his interview and did not talk to reporters.
Chaffetz, who didn't announce his bid until Sunday, acknowledged he's the long-shot candidate and said he would endorse the nominee on Thursday instead of trying to make a play for the position during the floor vote.
"Mr. McCarthy is very well-liked and rightfully so... We're optimistic, but realistic, too. I'm the underdog. I get that. But we're going to give it a go," he said.
Leaving the meeting, Webster described his pitch simply as a "principle-based, not power-based system."