The conservative House Freedom Caucus announced Wednesday that it would back Rep. Daniel Webster to be the next speaker, which would provide enough support to the Republican conference to deny the position to establishment favorite Kevin McCarthy, the current majority leader.
Emerging from a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill, conservative lawmakers pledged to present a united front in support of Mr. Webster, Florida Republican, signaling that the same rift in the conference that forced Speaker John A. Boehner to resign would continue to roil the largest Republican majorities in the House since the 1920s.
Members of the Freedom Caucus, led by Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, said they would force an embarrassing floor fight in the speaker election unless the House Republican conference adopts rules that would diffuse some of the power of the leadership team and give more input to rank-and-file members.
“Our intention is to go to the floor unless real changes are made,” said Rep. Raul R. Labrador, an Idaho Republican and member of the Freedom Caucus.
Mr. McCarthy is expected to garner a majority of support when the House Republican conference casts secret ballots Thursday for speaker. But with more than 30 conservatives opposing him, the California Republican would fall short of the 218 votes needed to win a floor vote scheduled for Oct. 29.
Republicans hold a 246-seat majority in the House.
Mr. McCarthy, who already faces opposition from conservatives because of his role on Mr. Boehner’s leadership team, sabotaged his run last week when he boasted on Fox News that the Select Committee on Benghazi was responsible for the falling poll numbers of Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton. The flub gave fresh ammunition to Mrs. Clinton and her Democratic allies, who have long complained that the inquiry is a partisan witch hunt.
In another display of distrust and backbiting inside the party, Rep. Walter B. Jones called on all the candidates in the leadership elections to withdraw their names from consideration if they are “guilty of misdeeds that, if made public, would be embarrassing to the Republican Conference and the House of Representatives.”
Mr. Jones, North Carolina Republican, pointed to the embarrassments of Speaker Newt Gingrich, who was reprimanded for an ethics violation in 1997, and Rep. Bob Livingston of Louisiana, who dropped out of the race for speaker in 1998 after admitting to an extramarital affair.
“Let’s make sure the new House Republican leadership team is full of individuals that can do the job without distractions that further degrade the public’s trust in the people’s House,” Mr. Jones said, implying doubts about the candidates.
The Freedom Caucus endorsed Mr. Webster, who served as speaker of the Florida House, over Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
The loss of support from the conference’s core conservatives made Mr. Chaffetz’s uphill battle for the speaker’s gavel even steeper.
In the closed-door vote, more than 80 percent of Freedom Caucus members got behind Mr. Webster and the rest backed Mr. Chaffetz. Mr. McCarthy received no votes, said members who participated in the process.
The lawmakers agreed that the entire caucus would remain unified in support of Mr. Webster, providing him at least 30 votes when the full Republican conference meets Thursday to select the party’s nominee for speaker.
The conference also will consider several rule changes, including measures that would reduce the leadership team’s dominance in committee assignments and force candidates for leadership posts to give up their current positions.
The rule changes could strengthen Mr. McCarthy’s position while diminishing his power if he ascends to speaker.
Rep. John Fleming, Louisiana Republican, said he and fellow members of the Freedom Caucus were prepared to go to the mat to force the leadership to adopt “less of a top-down structure, which is what we have now.”
Conservative opposition to Mr. Boehner, including a looming threat of a coup, prompted him two weeks ago to unexpectedly announce his resignation as speaker and from Congress. His resignation will take effect at the end of October after the leadership elections.
The secret ballot vote of the conference for speaker will reveal how much work Mr. McCarthy needs to do over the next three weeks to shore up support and avoid a floor flight.
Mr. McCarthy has been aggressively wooing supporters, including meeting with the Republican Study Committee, a large group of conservative members who are not as combative as the Freedom Caucus.
At the meeting, Mr. McCarthy stressed ways in which he differed from Mr. Boehner, an Ohio Republican who was targeted by conservatives for his top-down leadership style and for caving in to President Obama and House Democrats.
He pledged to be a “more inclusive” speaker, including restoring power to the committee system and bringing more bills to the floor, according to a member who was present.
Mr. McCarthy has been making the same pitch to various groups of lawmakers, in individual meetings and with phone calls.
“He’s talked to everybody, maybe several times over, as the others are doing too,” said Rep. Tim Walberg, Michigan Republican.
Conservative members said he will have to do more.