US Republicans elect pro-Trump congresswoman Elise Stefanik to House leadership

US Representative Elise Stefanik speaks to the media after the Republican caucus meeting, in Washington, on May 14, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - US Republicans on Friday (May 14) elected congresswoman Elise Stefanik, an outspoken defender of Donald Trump, as their new House conference chair, as the party scrambles to unify amid an explosive debate about its direction.

Stefanik, a 36-year-old former moderate representing upstate New York, easily overcame a late entrant to the race and won overwhelming support from the Republican conference in a closed-door vote of 134 to 46.

"My focus is on unity, because that's what the American people and that's what our voters deserve," she told reporters after vaulting into the number three House Republican position - and the party's most powerful woman in Congress.

"We are going on offence and are going to win back the majority in 2022" in the House of Representatives, said Stefanik, the party's new top messenger.

The vote came two days after the conference ousted Liz Cheney, a conservative stalwart and daughter of former vice president Dick Cheney, from the post over her repeated criticism of Trump and her refusal to embrace his false claim that Democrats stole the 2020 election.

With Trump retaining enormous influence, Republicans have been desperate to tamp down swelling discord within party ranks over its future.

Conservatives aim to craft a coherent message heading into next year's midterm elections, but some Republicans fear that failing to reject Trump's rhetoric about voter fraud could hurt the party at the polls.

Trump an 'important voice'

But Stefanik made clear that Trump and Trumpism will remain vital in the effort to turn back the "destructive, radical, far-left socialist agenda" of President Joe Biden and his Democrats.

Trump "is a critical part of our Republican team," Stefanik said.

"I support president Trump, voters support president Trump," she added. "He is an important voice in our Republican Party and we look forward to working with him." Trump, whose grip on the party has tightened with Stefanik's elevation, immediately congratulated her for the "overwhelming" win.

"The House GOP is united and the Make America Great Again movement is Strong!" the former president said.

Stefanik's ascension to leadership was the singular bright spot for Republicans in an otherwise difficult week.

On Thursday after a meeting with Biden and top congressional Democrats at the White House, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy made the dubious assertion that "I don't think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election."

One day earlier during a contentious House hearing, Republicans sought to downplay the seriousness of the deadly January 6 attack on the US Capitol by Trump supporters, with congressman Andrew Clyde saying footage from the day of the insurrection appeared to show "a normal tourist visit" to the building.

And in a sign that tensions still haunt Congress six months after the election, Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has espoused wild conspiracy theories, aggressively confronted progressive Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, heightening concerns about security in Congress.

Ousted from leadership, Cheney has vowed to continue fighting for conservative principles and against a defeated leader who keeps spreading "the big lie" of voter fraud.

Asked whether there was a place in the party for vocal Trump critics like Cheney or congressman Adam Kinzinger - both of whom voted to impeach Trump in January - Stefanik sought to strike a unifying note.

"They are part of this Republican conference," she said, then added: "We are unified in working with president Trump."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.