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House Republicans are considering 8 candidates for the top job

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

All right. Yesterday, eight House Republicans made their case to be the latest speaker nominee. Today, there will be a secret ballot on all those nominees. Lowest vote-getter out of the eight candidates will be out until one is left standing for a floor vote. For more on this, I'm joined now by Republican Congressman Dusty Johnson of South Dakota.

Congressman, what can you tell us about that process yesterday? How did the candidates make their case that they should be speaker?

DUSTY JOHNSON: Well, there was a candidate forum. And obviously, with eight candidates, it was a little messy. They were not allowed to give, you know, long-form answers. That was just the nature of the format. But I do think each of them seemed to understand the gravity of the situation. This has been a mess. We're in the fourth week without a speaker. These are not political games. This is actually a government that needs to be run. I think they understand that we have an ally at war. We have a southern border in crisis. And we are - we have a government shutdown looming in just a few weeks. They all seem to get the fact that real leadership is needed now.

MARTÍNEZ: You said it's a mess. Is it also embarrassing for the Republican Party right now?

JOHNSON: It is not the kind of thing any of us should aspire to - I would say that. I continue to be pretty frustrated with the eight hard-liners that joined with the Democrats originally four weeks ago to kick Kevin McCarthy out of office. We're in kind of an environment where we just - it's like anything goes in politics. And anything we can do to kick down somebody else's sandcastle generally is considered fair game. It's unfortunate. I think we need a return to norms. We need the big boys and the big girls to remind everybody that this is not a reality TV show. There are 350 million Americans and billions across the globe that have become accustomed to a certain maturity and responsibility from this country, and we are squandering that reputation, that goodwill and that strength.

MARTÍNEZ: Speaking of Kevin McCarthy, I remember a while back - January, I think, is when you spoke to my colleague Steve Inskeep. That's when Kevin McCarthy was running for speaker. And you said back then that no one else was qualified. Is someone else qualified now - for you?

JOHNSON: I mean no disrespect to the eight candidates who are running, but they have shoes that are too big to fill right now. That's not to say that any of them would be a failure. I think they're all very capable in their own way. But Kevin McCarthy really had an emotional intelligence that allowed us to keep this train on the tracks for nine months. And, in fact, there were a lot more legislative packages passed out of the Republican House than most people thought could have been possible when we started so chaotically nine months ago. Whoever else - whoever wins this thing is going to have a very steep learning curve, and I think there are some messy times ahead.

MARTÍNEZ: Are you open to working with Democrats to elect a speaker?

JOHNSON: I would say that there is less goodwill between Republicans and Democrats in the House right now, at this moment, than any point in the five years I've been in the House. I've certainly worked with Democrats to pass a number of important legislative packages. And obviously, just the very nature of divided government - we have a Democratic Senate and a Republican House. That literally means you cannot pass any legislation without votes from both sides of the aisle. So of course, I'm willing to work with Democrats. There is still a high level of frustration that the 208 Democrats worked - or basically gave the ammunition that the eight hard-liners needed to put us into this chaos four weeks ago.

MARTÍNEZ: But it was still on your party.

JOHNSON: It's going to be a little while before those...

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah.

JOHNSON: What's that?

MARTÍNEZ: It was still on your party, though. You're in control. So - I've heard other Republicans want to kind of involve the Democrats in this mess. Ultimately...

JOHNSON: No, but, A, let's be clear about this. I think there are two questions - one question is, has this chaos served America? The answer to that is clearly no. America's best interests have not been served. The second question is, could the Democrats have avoided this? And the answer to that is yes. And so I will not excuse somebody injuring our country just because of blind partisanship.

MARTÍNEZ: But if Republicans had all united behind one speaker and voted, it - this wouldn't have happened.

JOHNSON: Oh, absolutely. And I will share the bulk of my frustration for the eight hard-liners, you know, on the Republican side who are clearly chaos agents. But their irresponsibility will not paper over the fact that Democrats aided and abetted this four weeks of chaos.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That is Republican Congressman Dusty Johnson of South Dakota. Congressman, thank you very much for taking the time.

JOHNSON: Absolutely. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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