House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, is making a long-shot bid for the speaker job.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, is making a long-shot bid for the speaker job. Susan Walsh/AP

One Candidate for House Speaker Wouldn't Have a Problem Shutting the Government Down

Rep. Jason Chaffetz says it was 'ab­so­lutely flat-out wrong' for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to pledge to keep agencies open.

"Finally these mem­bers are call­ing me back,” Rep. Jason Chaf­fetz said, tap­ping his buzz­ing Apple Watch as he faced a room­ful of re­port­ers for the first time since mak­ing pub­lic his long-shot bid to be­come the next Speak­er.

The elec­tion is Thursday, and Chaf­fetz is only on day two of his bid for the gavel. He star­ted mak­ing calls Sunday and the re­sponses have been slow go­ing. Still, Chaf­fetz is keen to prove he can be a new kind of lead­er of the Re­pub­lic­an party, and that’s, he said, why he’s chal­len­ging his friend, Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Kev­in Mc­Carthy.

Look­ing to se­cure the con­ser­vat­ive vote, Chaf­fetz is on the at­tack: Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell is “ab­so­lutely flat-out wrong” to pledge not to shut down the gov­ern­ment, Mc­Carthy is not a good enough pub­lic speak­er to speak for House Re­pub­lic­ans, and if any­one wants to pun­ish him for say­ing so by, for in­stance, tak­ing his com­mit­tee gavel, the pub­lic has his back, he said.

Chaf­fetz ac­know­ledged Mc­Carthy has far more sup­port right now, but giv­en the ten­or of the party in gen­er­al and the con­fer­ence in par­tic­u­lar, Chaf­fetz said he thinks Mc­Carthy simply can­not se­cure the 218 votes needed on the House floor to win the speak­er­ship. Un­like oth­er party lead­er­ship po­s­i­tions, the speak­er­ship must be won by a vote of the full house, in­clud­ing Demo­crats. Chaf­fetz said roughly 50 mem­bers have ex­pressed to him that un­der no cir­cum­stances can they cast a pub­lic bal­lot for Mc­Carthy.

“I don’t think they want to go home and say they just gave a pro­mo­tion to the ex­ist­ing lead­er­ship,” Chaf­fetz said. In­stead, what House Re­pub­lic­ans have been telling him, he said, is, “‘I can’t vote for the guy, I’m go­ing to get killed at home. That’s not what we need. We need to go a dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tion.’”

That’s where Chaf­fetz comes in. The buoy­ant 48-year-old Mor­mon from Utah touts his ex­per­i­ence as a former Brigham Young Uni­versity place kick­er, his com­mu­nic­a­tions back­ground and fledgling chair­man­ship of the Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee, the hear­ing room in which he met re­port­ers for a lengthy sit-down in­ter­view.

Yet Chaf­fetz is not even his first choice for speak­er. Last week he touted Rep. Trey Gowdy and on Monday said Rep. Paul Ry­an might make a bet­ter choice too. But as those mem­bers took them­selves out of con­ten­tion, Chaf­fetz said con­ser­vat­ive mem­bers re­cruited him.

“It’s not as if this group or­gan­ic­ally has been chant­ing, ‘Chaf­fetz, Chaf­fetz.’ I get that, I get that,” he said. “What I’m of­fer­ing my­self up as is, can I be pal­at­able to those people who des­per­ately want this change and will not, can­not, vote for Kev­in Mc­Carthy on the House floor?”

“Ul­ti­mately,” he said of the GOP Con­fer­ence, “they need to find a per­son who can bridge the far-ul­tra-right-wing fac­tion of our party with the more cent­rist mem­bers. We’ve got to be able to build that bridge and I’m sug­gest­ing that I’m one of a hand­ful of people that the dis­af­fected feel will listen to them, re­spect them and hear them out but will also be pal­at­able to the more cent­rist mem­bers.”

Chaf­fetz—along with many oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans—has been a vo­cal crit­ic of Mc­Carthy’s re­cent sug­ges­tion that the Benghazi Com­mit­tee ex­ists to polit­ic­ally at­tack Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial fron­trun­ner Hil­lary Clin­ton. (Mc­Carthy has since walked back those com­ments.) “We need a speak­er who can speak,” Chaf­fetz said re­peatedly dur­ing the in­ter­view. When asked wheth­er that’s an at­tack on Mc­Carthy, he shot back with a smile, “Do you really think I need to ex­plain that one?”

“My as­cen­sion has to hap­pen or­gan­ic­ally. It’s not be­cause I have some soph­ist­ic­ated whip op­er­a­tion and I’ve handed out to checks to mem­bers over the last sev­er­al years,” he said. “There will even­tu­ally be a real­iz­a­tion that we bet­ter darn well put up a fresh face, some­body who can speak, some­body that can help raise the money out­side of the role and some­body who can be a fair ar­bit­er in­tern­ally to get the pro­cess en­dorsed and sup­por­ted by more mem­bers.”

Wheth­er that real­iz­a­tion comes on Thursday or later in the month when mem­bers nom­in­ate their can­did­ate for speak­er on the the House floor, Chaf­fetz does not know. But even if Mc­Carthy wins the secret vote among Re­pub­lic­ans on Thursday, it is clear Chaf­fetz is ready to be the com­prom­ise can­did­ate in the case of a dead­lock on the floor.

Chaf­fetz said he wants to re­form the com­mit­tee struc­ture to al­low bills to move through the pro­cess rather than be handed down from lead­er­ship with no pan­el hear­ings or mem­ber in­put. He also said he would be OK with bills fail­ing on the floor if that’s the will of the House. He refers to that plan when asked how he would handle a pending debt ceil­ing in­crease or gov­ern­ment fund­ing lapse. Al­though he said he does not per­son­ally sup­port rais­ing the debt ceil­ing without pre­con­di­tions or al­low­ing a gov­ern­ment fund­ing bill to pass without a pro­vi­sion cut­ting fund­ing for Planned Par­ent­hood, he said he wants to al­low the rel­ev­ant com­mit­tees to have their chance to handle those is­sues be­fore as­sert­ing him­self.

He also is push­ing for in­tern­al re­forms backed by con­ser­vat­ives that in­clude chan­ging the way the con­fer­ence con­sti­tutes the Steer­ing Com­mit­tee, a se­cret­ive group of mem­bers who vote on who will chair al­most every com­mit­tee. Mak­ing those changes, he said, would go a long way to end the in­fight­ing that has marred the House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence over the last sev­er­al years, and ul­ti­mately led to Speak­er John Boehner’s re­tire­ment.

“If we can re­form the pro­cess part, then I think we can get some of those oth­er mem­bers to come along and live with the res­ults and ac­tu­ally stand up and sup­port those res­ults,” he said. “But right now there is a gulf and a di­vide that is caus­ing an­im­os­ity.”

Chaf­fetz him­self was the tar­get of some of that an­im­os­ity earli­er this year, when he re­moved Rep. Mark Mead­ows from a sub­com­mit­tee chair­man­ship after Mead­ows and oth­ers voted against a pro­ced­ur­al mo­tion on the House floor. He was pushed in­to back­ing down, and Mead­ows went on to of­fer the mo­tion to re­move Boehner from the speak­er­ship that pres­aged his pending resig­na­tion. Still, Chaf­fetz said he was wrong to re­move Mead­ows and called it a learn­ing ex­per­i­ence.

“It was an im­port­ant les­son to me that you’re not go­ing to break knuckles in or­der to build unity,” he said. “But what’s im­port­ant is what I did with it. My com­mit­tee mem­bers felt that I over­ex­ten­ded my­self. I spent an hour and 40 minutes with them in a full group, I listened to them, I prayed about it and I came back and re­in­sti­tuted him.”

Yet he said he’ll be fair to mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans too, many of whom he said he spent time with on the phone on Sunday. “What I do and how I do it has not been the vit­ri­ol­ic ap­proach that some of the oth­ers have taken. I can say it and do it in such a way that is pal­at­able to our own cent­rist mem­bers.”