WASHINGTON (AP) — In his quest to become Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy is going straight into history — potentially becoming the first candidate in 100 years unable to win the job in a first-round vote.
The increasingly real prospect of a messy fight for the president’s gavel on the first day of the new Congress on Jan. 3 has House Republicans bracing for the show. They met incessantly in private at the Capitol to try to resolve the impasse.
Grabbing a dangerously slim 222-seat Republican majority in the 435-member House and facing a handful of defectors, McCarthy is working hard to hit the 218-vote threshold typically needed to become president.
“The fear is that if we stumble out the door,” said Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., a McCarthy ally, then the voters who sent the Republicans to Washington “will riot about it and they’ll feel disappointed”. .”
Not since the disputed election of 1923 has a candidate for Speaker of the House faced public scrutiny of calling a new session of Congress only to descend into political chaos, with a vote after the other, until a new president is chosen. At that point, it finally took nine grueling ballots to get the gavel.
McCarthy, a Republican from Bakersfield, Calif., who was first elected in 2006 and remains allied with Donald Trump, has signaled he is prepared to go as long as it takes in a floor vote to secure the post of president he had wanted for years. The former president endorsed McCarthy and would make calls on McCarthy’s behalf. McCarthy gave no indication he would step down, as he did in 2015 when it was clear he didn’t have the backing.
But McCarthy also acknowledges that the holdouts won’t budge. “Everything is in jeopardy,” McCarthy said Friday in an interview with curator Hugh Hewitt.
The dilemma reflects not only McCarthy’s uncertain stature among his peers, but also the shifting political norms in Congress as party leaders who once wielded immense power – the names of Cannon, Rayburn and now Pelosi adorn meeting halls and the House office buildings – see it slipping away into the 21st century.
Grassroots lawmakers have become political stars on their own terms, able to shape their brands on social media and raise their own funds for campaigns. Members of the House are less dependent than they once were on party leaders to dish out favors in return for support.
The test for McCarthy, if he is able to consolidate votes on January 3 or in the days following, will be whether he emerges a weakened speaker, forced to pay a huge price for the gavel, or if the power potentially brutal struggle emboldened his new direction.
“Does he want to become the first speaker candidate in 100 years to speak and basically have to, you know, give up?” said Jeffrey A. Jenkins, a professor at the University of Southern California and co-author of “Fighting for the Speakership.”
“But if he pulls that bunny out of the hat, you know, maybe he actually has more good stuff.”
Republicans gathered privately last week for another lengthy session as McCarthy’s critics, largely a handful of conservative Freedom Caucus stalwarts, demand changes to House rules that would diminish the power of the president’s office .
Freedom Caucus members and others want assurances that they will be able to help draft bills from scratch and have the ability to amend bills during in-room debates . They want the application of the 72-hour rule which requires bills to be presented for consideration before the vote.
Outgoing President Nancy Pelosi, D-California, and the last two Republican Presidents, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, have faced similar challenges, but they have been able to rely on the currency of their position to distribute favors, negotiate agreements and earn otherwise. opponents to keep them in line – for a while. Boehner and Ryan ended up retiring early.
But the central demand of McCarthy’s opponents may go too far: They want to restore a House rule that allows any lawmaker to table a motion to “vacate the chair,” essentially allowing a floor vote to remove the president from office. .
The early leaders of the Freedom Caucus, under Mark Meadows, the former North Carolina congressman turned Trump chief of staff, used the little-used procedure as a threat to Boehner, and later, Ryan.
It wasn’t until Pelosi grabbed the gavel for the second time, in 2019, that House Democrats voted to scrap the rule and require a caucus majority vote to issue a floor vote challenge to the ‘speaker.
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, said the 200-year rule was good enough for Thomas Jefferson, so it’s one he’d like to see in place.
“We are still a long way from fixing this institution as it should,” Roy told reporters on Capitol Hill Thursday.
What is unclear for McCarthy is even if he gives in to the various demands of the conservatives, if that will be enough for them to drop their opposition to his leadership.
Several House Republicans have said they don’t think McCarthy will ever be able to defeat critics.
“I don’t believe he’ll get 218 votes,” Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., said of the holdouts. “And so I look forward to when that recognition settles in and, for the good of the country, for the good of Congress, he steps down and we can consider other candidates.”
Opposition to McCarthy has promoted a counteroffensive from other groups of House Republicans who are increasingly vocal in their support for the GOP leader — and more concerned about the fallout if the start of the new Congress turns into an internal party fight.
Representative David Joyce, R-Ohio, who leads the Republican governance group, wore an “OK” button on his lapel – which stands for “Only Kevin,” he explained.
Some have suggested that McCarthy’s opponents could simply vote “present,” lowering the threshold to reach a majority – a tactic Pelosi and Boehner both used to win with less than 218 votes.
While some have suggested threatening critics with removal from committee assignments or other retaliation, Rep. Dusty Johnson, RS.D., a leader of another Conservative governance caucus, said: “Anyone who thinks that the holdouts are going to be bullied into compliance don’t understand how this town works.
Incumbent Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who recalled then-Republican President Newt Gingrich of Georgia dropped out of the race in 1998 when he didn’t have the votes, warned McCarthy against any setback.
“My advice to Kevin is you gotta go to the finish line,” Upton said. “You can’t fold the cards. You have to get these people to vote – and vote.