Kevin McCarthy scrambles to firm up his speaker bid as vote looms
If McCarthy fails to win the gavel on the first ballot Tuesday, it would be a historic loss: No leader vying for speaker has lost a first-round vote in a century.
“Two trains are going 100 miles per hour and everyone is wondering: Which one will survive?” one senior GOP aide said in trying to capture the current mood within the conference.
Five Republicans have remained firm in their opposition to McCarthy, or are leaning toward no, since the election. They include Rep. Andy Biggs (Ariz.), who lost to McCarthy in a vote behind closed doors in November but will challenge him publicly on the floor Tuesday.
While McCarthy has made numerous concessions in an effort to win their votes, including changes to a provision that could limit his time as speaker, nine additional Republicans signed a letter late Sunday calling McCarthy’s proposal “insufficient,” further signaling that his ascent remains unassured.
“The times call for radical departure from the status quo — not a continuation of the past, and ongoing, Republican failures,” the nine wrote about McCarthy.
In response, McCarthy pledged in a letter to colleagues to “work with everyone in our party to build conservative consensus,” but stressed the need for the conference to unite around a proposed rules package that will dictate how the House governs over the next two years.
“It’s time for our new Republican majority to embrace these bold reforms and move forward as one,” McCarthy wrote. “That’s why on January 3 — and every day thereafter — I stand ready to be judged not by my words, but by my actions as Speaker.”
Privately, McCarthy remains defiant, keeping some final tactics available as he intends to stay on the floor Tuesday as long as it may take to get elected, according to several lawmakers who, like others in this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private and ongoing deliberations.
“To use his words, if they’re playing a game of chicken, he’s ripped the steering wheel out of the dashboard and he’s got his foot to the floor,” one Republican lawmaker said, paraphrasing a recent quip by McCarthy.
McCarthy’s possible failure to clinch the necessary 218 votes to become speaker could derail the 16-year congressional career that he has paved to reach this moment. Though he is known for his ability to trade favors in hopes of gaining trust, his quest could be for naught if he is unable to overcome the demands by some who seek to weaken the power of the speakership.
McCarthy, who entered the rungs of leadership just two years after he was first elected in 2007, had a front-row seat to how the Freedom Caucus influenced the demise of the speakerships of both John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.). Seeing how both men tried to ostracize the Freedom Caucus from the mainstream Republican Party, McCarthy instead embraced the group, even after Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) in 2015 led the group in opposition to McCarthy succeeding Boehner as the top Republican.
“[McCarthy is] a very strong relationship guy,” said Frank Luntz, a GOP pollster who is close friends with McCarthy. “Most congressional leaders, the higher they climb, the less they listen. Kevin’s been exactly the opposite, and that’s been the secret of his success.”
McCarthy has earned Jordan’s trust, as well as that of others in the Freedom Caucus, after including their ideological viewpoints into broader conference conversations over the years and giving some lawmakers key committee assignments.
He pledged to continue that commitment, telling colleagues, “I will use my selections on key panels to ensure they more closely reflect the ideological makeup of our conference, and will advocate for the same when it comes to the membership of standing committees.”
Most recently, McCarthy has gathered key lawmakers from all ideological factions in the conference to discuss how the House should function and held numerous conference-wide discussions ahead of voting to incorporate specific rules.
But the promises, whether on paper or pledged behind closed doors over the past two months, have yet to move the handful of Republicans who oppose him. The Freedom Caucus of today now includes more fervent allies of former president Donald Trump, who consider McCarthy part of the “establishment” problem, while others have concerns that the House will continue to function in a manner that strengthens leadership and weakens the membership. But even Trump has endorsed McCarthy as his choice for speaker.
The Freedom Caucus’s hold over Boehner and Ryan was a key reason that McCarthy and the House GOP’s largest super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, worked to elect in this year’s midterms more-moderate candidates considered more willing to govern. But that intervention, as first reported by The Washington Post, only added to the skepticism staunch hard-liners in the Freedom Caucus already had about McCarthy’s purely conservative credentials.
In reference to the rules package GOP leadership proposed, the nine conservatives noted in their letter Sunday that it “fails completely to address the issue of leadership working to defeat conservatives in open primaries” as a reason they are withholding their support from McCarthy.
Moderates and institutionalists have banded together to act as McCarthy’s front line of defense against the most fringe in their conference, refusing to entertain any other potential consensus candidates, such as incoming Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.), and pledging to only vote for McCarthy no matter how many ballots it takes, according to several lawmakers.
Over the weekend, McCarthy and his allies worked the phones to try to assuage Freedom Caucus members that their demands, largely surrounding concerns over how the House functions, could be met through compromise. McCarthy ultimately broke his own pledge not to change the “motion to vacate” rule to try to win over the five, deciding to include in the House rules that any five members can demand a vote to vacate, oust, the speaker.
Yet that concession appears insufficient to appease those who remain skeptical that McCarthy is conservative enough to lead them, according to people familiar with the discussions. McCarthy told reporters at the Capitol on Monday that while his rules proposal has won some Republicans over, he would not say if he’s considering lowering the motion-to-vacate rule back to one vote, as several staunch people in the “no” camp are demanding.
Moderates have privately pledged to vote against any rule package that would reverse the vacate rule, which previous House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) changed from allowing any member to demand a vote to recall the speaker to requiring that a member of leadership do so. But on a call Sunday, moderates appeared to cool that demand — only if it would ensure that McCarthy becomes speaker.
“His greatest skill is his ability to negotiate, and some have used that skill against him, saying that there should be no negotiation. But that’s not how you get things passed. That’s how you lose. If you refuse to negotiate, that’s how you lose,” Luntz said of McCarthy.
Without a speaker in place, basic House functions, like swearing in members and voting on a package dictating House rules, will be delayed indefinitely. Republicans’ fervent desire to begin investigating the Biden administration will also be impeded as McCarthy has withheld announcing committee assignments and some chairmanships until he is elected, a final bargaining chip he is holding onto. Committee staff would not get paid beginning on Jan. 14, a warning that was circulated last week as an impetus to not allow the speakership election to drag on.
Republicans have tried to publicly move past the discontent by announcing the first 11 bills they expect will pass with overwhelming majority support during the first two weeks of January. This priority legislation includes repealing funds set to hire 87,000 Internal Revenue Service employees, creating a select committee to investigate China, and addressing issues on the U.S.-Mexico border, among other measures. It does not include proposals to mitigate inflation, a major GOP campaign pledge.
But the high-stakes tension between the factions already on display ahead of the speakership vote has made many Republicans skeptical about whether they could even agree to propose unifying overhaul reform legislation on politically toxic issues like immigration and government reform.
“When the conference is this tight, I think we all work together. At the same time, nobody is going to have more power than anybody else. In a majority like this, more people can decide the future, wherever it goes,” McCarthy said in November. “So, we are going to lead as a team or we are going to lose as individuals. I think at the end of the day, we will lead as a team.”
Liz Goodwin contributed to this report.