House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy and his allies have spent the holiday weekend calling members and meeting with them in an attempt to save his career goal of becoming speaker on Tuesday, as Republicans continue to debate whether he deserves the position.
While the vast majority of Republicans support McCarthy (Calif.) as speaker, approximately 15 have cast serious doubt on the outcome. McCarthy can afford to lose only four Republicans on the House floor on Tuesday, and the razor-thin margin has emboldened House Freedom Caucus members, who have made specific demands in exchange for their votes.
If McCarthy fails to win the gavel on the first ballot on Tuesday, it will be a historic defeat: no speaker candidate has ever lost a first-round vote in a century.
“Two trains are travelling at 100 mph, and everyone is wondering which one will survive.” In an attempt to capture the mood of the conference, one senior GOP aide said.
Since the midterm elections, five Republicans have remained staunchly opposed to McCarthy, or are leaning that way. They include Rep. Andy Biggs (Ariz.), who lost to McCarthy in a closed-door conference vote in November but will challenge him publicly on the House floor on Tuesday.
McCarthy met with key lawmakers from across the political spectrum on Monday evening to go over what to expect on Tuesday. There was no breakthrough, as the holdouts emerged to reiterate to reporters that they were still opposed to his candidature.
While McCarthy has made numerous concessions in an attempt to win the holdouts’ votes, including changes to a provision that could limit his time as speaker, nine more Republicans signed a letter late Sunday calling McCarthy’s proposal “insufficient,” indicating that his ascension remains uncertain.
“The times demand a radical departure from the status quo — not a continuation of past and ongoing Republican failures,” the nine said of McCarthy.
In response, McCarthy promised colleagues in a letter to “work with everyone in our party to build conservative consensus,” but emphasised the importance of the conference coming together around a proposed rules package that will govern how the House governs over the next two years.
“It is time for our new Republican majority to embrace these bold reforms and move forward as a united front,” McCarthy wrote. “That is why, on January 3 — and every day after that — I will be judged not by my words, but by my actions as Speaker.”
According to several lawmakers who, like others for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private and ongoing deliberations, 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.
“If they’re playing 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 McCarthy’s recent remark.
Putting together the coalition
McCarthy’s potential failure to secure the required 218 votes to become Speaker of the House could derail his 16-year congressional career. Although he is known for his ability to trade favours in the hopes of gaining trust, his quest may be futile if he is unable to overcome the demands of those who seek to weaken the speakership’s power.
McCarthy, who rose to the ranks of leadership just two years after being elected in 2007, saw firsthand how the Freedom Caucus influenced the demise of John A. Boehner (Ohio) and Paul D. Ryan’s speakerships (Wis.). After witnessing how both men attempted to isolate the Freedom Caucus from the mainstream Republican Party, McCarthy instead embraced the group, even after Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio) led the group in opposition to McCarthy succeeding Boehner as the chamber’s top Republican in 2015.
“[McCarthy is] a very strong relationship guy,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who knows McCarthy well. “Most congressional leaders listen less as they rise in rank. Kevin has been the polar opposite, and that has been the key to his success.”
McCarthy has earned Jordan’s trust, as well as the trust of others in the Freedom Caucus, by incorporating their ideological perspectives into broader conference discussions over the years and appointing some lawmakers to key committees. He promised to keep that promise, 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 standing committee membership.”
McCarthy has recently convened key lawmakers from all ideological factions in the conference to discuss how the House should function, as well as numerous conference-wide discussions prior to voting on specific rules.
He also incorporated holdout demands, such as spending cuts, into the rules package, and supported the formation of a select committee modelled after the 1975 Senate “Church committee” that investigated the federal government post-Watergate, or, as McCarthy put it, the “weaponization of government against our citizens.”
However, whether on paper or behind closed doors over the last two months, his promises have yet to sway the handful of Republicans who oppose him.
Rep. Ralph Norman (S.C.), one of five Republican members who have said they will vote against McCarthy, said Monday afternoon that he will continue to do so unless McCarthy agrees to a seven-year balanced budget amendment.
“Miracles do occur. Could he suddenly decide to change his mind?” Norman stated. “I’m not sure it would be now. I know my first vote will be no, and so will my subsequent votes unless something dramatic happens.”
The current Freedom Caucus includes more ardent supporters of former President Donald Trump, who see McCarthy as part of the “establishment” problem, while others are concerned that the House will continue to function in a way that strengthens leadership while weakening membership. McCarthy, on the other hand, has been endorsed by Trump as his choice for Speaker.
The Freedom Caucus’ grip on Boehner and Ryan was a key reason McCarthy and the House GOP’s largest super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, worked to elect more-moderate candidates in this year’s midterm elections. But, as The Washington Post first reported, McCarthy’s intervention only added to the scepticism of the Freedom Caucus’ hardliners about McCarthy’s purely conservative credentials.
In reference to the GOP leadership’s proposed rules package, the nine conservatives stated in their letter Sunday that it “fails completely to address the issue of leadership working to defeat conservatives in open primaries,” which is why they are refusing to support McCarthy.
Rep. Bob Good (Va.) said in an op-ed published last week that his no vote goes beyond reforming House procedure because McCarthy did not “use every procedural tool at our disposal to thwart the radical Democrat agenda,” such as whip against bipartisan Senate bills.
“The upcoming speaker vote is about more than just defeating McCarthy and electing a more capable leader in January. “This is about striking a blow against the uni-party swamp cartel and defeating a Republican system hostile to conservatives, resentful of its base voters, and resistant to empowering individual members in order to keep power in the hands of an elite few,” Good wrote.
According to several lawmakers, moderates and institutionalists have banded together to act as McCarthy’s front line of defence against the most extreme members of their conference, refusing to entertain any other potential consensus candidates, such as incoming Majority Leader Steve Scalise (La. ), and pledging to vote only for McCarthy no matter how many ballots it takes.
“I don’t see any other outcome other than Kevin winning this,” said Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.). “I simply cannot because no one else can get 218 other than him.”
Over the weekend, McCarthy and his allies worked the phones to try to reassure Freedom Caucus members that their demands, which largely revolved around concerns about how the House operates, could be met through compromise. McCarthy eventually broke his promise not to change the “motion to vacate” rule in order to win over the five, deciding to include in House rules that any five members can demand a vote to oust the speaker.
Moderates have privately pledged to vote against any rule package that would reinstate the vacate rule, which was changed by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) from allowing any member to demand a vote to recall the speaker to requiring a member of leadership to do so.
McCarthy’s support remains strong across the conference, with rank-and-file members growing increasingly enraged at their colleagues who continue to oppose his candidature. On a call Sunday, however, the “Only Kevin” group appeared to back down on that demand — but only if it meant ensuring McCarthy’s election as speaker, which remains unclear.
“The term itself implies that there is give and take in any negotiation. And this has so far only been take, take, take,” said Rep. David Joyce (Ohio), chairman of the pragmatic GOP Governance Group. “That’s been the constant game for the ten years I’ve been here, that whenever you get to the goal line, they move the goal posts.”
Anticipating the unexpected
According to people familiar with the discussions, the concessions appear insufficient to appease those who remain sceptical that McCarthy is conservative enough to lead them. McCarthy told reporters at the Capitol on Monday that, while his rules proposal has won over some Republicans, he would not say whether he is considering reducing the motion-to-vacate rule to one vote, as several staunch opponents of the rule have demanded.
“His greatest skill is his ability to negotiate,” Luntz said of McCarthy. “But that’s not how things get passed. That is how you fail. If you refuse to negotiate, you will lose.”
McCarthy’s defeat on the first ballot would be historic — the first since 1923 — but it would not be unprecedented. Republicans are expected to approve a second round of voting out of respect for McCarthy. But what happens next is anybody’s guess.
McCarthy, according to several lawmakers and aides familiar with his thinking, is adamant about remaining on the floor until his critics cave.
If McCarthy is unable to secure the necessary votes, Republicans believe he will either recognise his inability and withdraw, or members will privately bring that reality to his attention. Those in the “Only Kevin” camp are not considering another speaker and would only do so if McCarthy withdraws from the race.
“At the end of the day, if they’re intellectually honest, they’ll stop playing this game and simply say, ‘We’re not voting for Kevin; we just don’t like him, and we’ll never vote for him.'” “From there, people, including Kevin, will be able to make informed decisions,” Joyce said.
Without a speaker, basic House functions like swearing in members and voting on a package of House rules would be postponed indefinitely. It’s a warning that McCarthy allies have repeatedly given to their Freedom Caucus counterparts, emphasising that without McCarthy, a consensus candidate between the GOP and Democrats would have to emerge, destroying Republican chances of influencing anything in the next Congress.
“With Kevin, he’s much more approachable to you guys. “He’s bent over backwards to get your rule changes in,” one lawmaker said of his approach to negotiations with colleagues. “With a consensus candidate, you’re going to have to compromise on subpoenas, impeachment of any officials, and all of that. And then you’ll get absolutely nothing of what you desire.”