Conservatives emerged from a late Tuesday night gathering in which they questioned a trio of candidates to be the next House speaker, only to report that none of the three has likely secured the support of the 218 Republicans needed to win when the election takes place Oct. 29.
"I wouldn't predict there is one at this point if there was a vote right now this night," said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, as he left the forum, which was held near the Capitol at Republican headquarters. "Hopefully by Thursday we can get there but it's going to be difficult."
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Fla., made their pitches before a closed-door forum hosted by three conservative House caucus groups, including the Freedom Caucus, whose members frequently clashed with the current GOP leadership.
McCarthy is considered the lead contender for the speaker's gavel, but he is struggling to secure the support of conservatives, who he has bitterly battled as a part of leadership team.
Conservatives have little affection for McCarthy thanks to his role in punishing them in retaliation for not voting the way leaders wanted on key legislation. Several conservatives have lost committee posts and leadership positions over the years.
Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., said he asked during the forum about McCarthy's move to block Jones from renaming a post office in his district, normally an easily accomplished move. Jones has regularly fought with the leadership, spearheading the first failed effort to depose House Speaker John Boehner in 2013.
"Why, if we have a leadership that many of us feel has failed, why would we want to promote anyone in that leadership to a higher position," Jones asked.
House Republicans will vote on Thursday to determine their nominee for House speaker, which will require a simple majority of the GOP conference members who are present, or 124 votes if everyone is there.
McCarthy backers say he'll win more than a majority, but lawmakers said the candidate Republicans nominate on Thursday with 125 votes won't be guaranteed to win the 218 Republican votes needed to win the House floor election, in which votes are cast by both parties and a majority of all voting House lawmakers is needed to win.
"Whoever is nominated by the conference has got to have the leadership skills to pull together 218 votes to support him," said Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, as he emerged from the candidates forum, which was held at the Capitol Hill Club.
McCarthy tried to convince lawmakers at the forum he would do things differently than Speaker Boehner, R-Ohio, who is stepping down in part to dodge attempts by conservatives to oust him. "I'm not John Boehner, I'm going to run things different, I'm my own man," Farenthold said, describing McCarthy's pitch.
Several conservatives leaving the meeting said they plan to back Webster, who wants to fundamentally change the way Republicans operate so that a few leaders aren't making critical decisions for everybody.
Webster told reporters he "presented his case" to convert the GOP conference into a "principle based, not power based" system.
"I'm impressed with the way he would like to structure the House," Jones said of Webster.
Chaffetz tapped into the conservative desire to upend the way Republicans operate. He told reporters he talked about "how we should fundamentally change the way we do business around here."
Members, he said, demanded that change. "Making sure that all members are valued," Chaffetz said. "Even if they have a different vote on the floor they want to be respected, too."
McCarthy, who spoke first at the forum, dodged the press by slipping out a side door and into an awaiting car, which drove off virtually unnoticed.