WASHINGTON — Jason Chaffetz, the congressman from Utah running for speaker, said Monday he is equipped to unite the fractured Republican conference in the House so they can effectively battle the Obama administration and congressional Democrats.
“We got to unite and fight,” Chaffetz said during an hour-long discussion with reporters about his last-minute bid. “And that’s not happening right now.”
Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, is running as an alternative to House majority leader Kevin McCarthy, who has the support of outgoing speaker John Boehner. He made bid for speaker official over the weekend, just days before the vote is scheduled to take place.
Looking relaxed Monday morning as he sat in a chair in the middle of the Oversight committee room and took questions from reporters, Chaffetz said he had not been planning to run for speaker, but felt compelled at the end of last week after others declined to challenge McCarthy.
“If we don’t inject new blood into the leadership team, our constituents are going to be irate at best,” he said. “There’s a massive drumbeat out there that the status quo is not what we sent you there to perpetuate.”
“Simply giving existing leadership a promotion is not going to work well at home,” he added.
The Utah Republican’s campaign comes as some members are looking to back someone other than McCarthy, who was part of Boehner’s leadership team that has repeatedly clashed with conservatives.
Chaffetz said he’s offering himself as someone who can “calm those waters, build those bridges, implement the reforms and provide that fresh start that our conference is desperately seeking.”
“You got to have somebody who bridges that gulf,” Chaffetz said.
Boehner has set the conference meeting to elect his replacement for Thursday. The other Republican running for speaker is Florida Rep. Daniel Webster.
Chaffetz acknowledged McCarthy has locked down commitments from many House Republicans to win the closed-door party vote scheduled for Thursday. But Chaffetz argued McCarthy, lacking support from a voting block of conservatives, doesn’t have the necessary 218 votes at this point to actually be elected speaker in the live vote with the entire House of Representatives.
“There is a clear recognition that Kevin McCarthy enjoys the majority of the conference’s support,” Chaffetz said. “But that’s dwindling, it’s not growing, and there will be a realization at some point that he can’t get to 218. And that’s just the reality.”
Boehner surprised the world Sept. 25 by announcing his plans to step down as leader and resign from Congress. Chaffetz said he is influenced to run for speaker now after constituents back home pressed him during the last speaker election as to why no Republican ran against Boehner.
“I recalled some of the discussions I had at home where people said, “why did you vote for John Boehner? I said, ‘Well he was our nominee.’ They said, ‘Who else ran?’ And I said, ‘Nobody.’ And they got all mad and I said, ‘Shame on us, lesson learned.’”
An underdog getting in the race with just hours before the vote, Chaffetz is getting a late start on asking members for support and doesn’t have an organized effort on his behalf, like McCarthy.
“I don’t have a formal whip count,” he said. “I don’t have a formal whip team. This is going to have to happen organically. And I’m calling as fast and furiously as I can every member. But that literally started yesterday.”
Chaffetz said McCarthy is a friend and he informed him of his decision before making his announcement. “I sat with Kevin in New York on Friday morning and told him what I was going to do,” he said. “Eyeball to eyeball. He was the first person that I told.”
Should Chaffetz win, the congressman pointed out, McCarthy would still remain majority leader. “It’s a question of whether he’s going to be speaker or majority leader,” he said. “It’s not as if it’s all or nothing.”
McCarthy’s verbal gaffe last week — talking about the positive political effects the House Benghazi committee has had against Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign — plays into Chaffetz’s argument that the party needs to nominate a smooth communicator.
“We need a speaker who speaks,” he said. “We’ve been relatively silent.”