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Utah lawmaker muddles race for speaker of the House

Jason Chaffetz, who was raised Jewish but converted to Mormonism, throws hat in ring to succeed Boehner, but faces long odds

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. (AP/Cliff Owen)
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. (AP/Cliff Owen)

An up-and-coming House committee chairman announced his long-shot candidacy Sunday for speaker of the House, adding a new dose of turmoil for reeling House Republicans.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah presented himself as a new face who can unite the House in the wake of Speaker John Boehner’s sudden resignation last month. Boehner’s deputy, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, remains the favorite, but Chaffetz’s candidacy ensures there will be no coronation.

Chaffetz, according to a 2010 profile in The Forward, was born to a Jewish father and raised Jewish, but converted to Mormonism while an undergraduate at Brigham Young University.

House Republican lawmakers will vote by secret ballot on Thursday, followed by a floor vote in the full House later in the month.

“I can bridge that divide between our more centrist members and some of the more far-right-wing members. That’s why I’ve entered this race,” Chaffetz told “Fox News Sunday.”

“The American public wants to see a change. They want a fresh start,” Chaffetz said. “There’s a reason why we see this phenomenon across the country, and you don’t just give an automatic promotion to the existing leadership team. That doesn’t signal change.”

Chaffetz, the 48-year-old chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has used that post to launch high-profile investigations of the Secret Service, Planned Parenthood and other issues.

His candidacy, which took most lawmakers by surprise when news began to emerge Friday, underscores the chaos in the House a little more than a week after Boehner announced he would resign rather than face a possible floor vote to depose him pushed by hard-line conservatives.

In the days immediately following, McCarthy was viewed as the presumptive favorite to replace the outgoing speaker, who quickly endorsed his No. 2.

But that dynamic began to shift, particularly following McCarthy’s gaffe last week suggesting that the purpose of a special House committee investigating the deadly 2012 attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, was to drive down Hillary Rodham Clinton’s poll numbers. Clinton, secretary of state at that time, is now the front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president in 2016.

McCarthy retracted the comment and said he regrets it, but it’s given a potent weapon to Democrats ahead of a high-profile Oct. 22 appearance by Clinton before the committee. The Benghazi attacks killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

Chaffetz acknowledged that McCarthy has the support of a majority of House Republicans. But under House rules, that outcome does not guarantee that McCarthy will become speaker. He also has to win a public vote of the full House later in October. That outcome is less certain because of potential opposition to McCarthy from the same 30-plus hard-line conservatives who pushed Boehner out.

There are 247 Republicans and 188 Democrats in the House, and Democrats would be certain to vote against McCarthy. That means McCarthy could lose only 29 Republicans and still come out with majority support.

So far McCarthy has not claimed he has the needed 218 votes locked up. But Chaffetz’ ability to get 218 votes in the House seems even less certain. Nor is it clear that the House Republicans’ hard-line faction will embrace him.

That suggests ongoing tumult ahead in the weeks leading up to the floor vote, even as Congress is confronting a weighty to-do list, starting with raising the government’s borrowing limit in early November. At the same time the presidential contest is riding an anti-establishment wave that’s seen some of the candidates denounce Congress’ Republican leaders.

Amid the disarray some lawmakers are seeking more time to consider their options. Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney planned to send a letter seeking a delay in elections to lower-level leadership posts.

McCarthy’s spokesman declined comment on Chaffetz’s announcement.

But Republicans friendly to McCarthy began circulating material to reporters intended to discredit Chaffetz by pointing out some of his own occasionally controversial comments, such as refusing to rule out impeachment of President Barack Obama over Benghazi.

A hearing on Planned Parenthood that Chaffetz presided over last week also drew criticism from Republicans for failing to effectively prosecute the women’s health care provider’s practice of providing fetal tissues for research.

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