GOP tension builds over House speaker race as McCarthy and critics prep for floor fight

GOP tension builds over House speaker race as McCarthy and critics prep for floor fight

House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy and his critics are gearing up for a potential floor fight over the speakership in January, raising the possibility of a messy intraparty showdown that could bring uncertainty and chaos just as Republicans prepare to enter their new majority.

McCarthy still insists he will have the 218 votes needed to secure the speakership. Conservative hardliners seeking to plot McCarthy’s ouster say otherwise.

And what will happen if he can’t get 218 votes? No one knows.

“You can’t beat somebody with nobody, and there’s nobody else running,” said Rep. Dusty Johnson, a South Dakota Republican who supports McCarthy for speaker. “Even if there was another announced candidate, that person would not be better positioned to get 218 than Kevin.”

McCarthy’s foes say another candidate will emerge and that talks have already begun to recruit a replacement.

“There’s quiet talks going on with other candidates,” said Rep. Bob Good, a Virginia Republican who’s one of the handful of conservative hardliners publicly saying they are “hard no” votes against McCarthy. “But as you might imagine, those candidates are going to be very hesitant or reluctant to be in any way public.”

If McCarthy loses more than four GOP votes on January 3, he is expected to fall under the 218 votes he would need to claim the speakership. Then the House would keep voting until someone wins a majority of support from the members in attendance who are choosing a specific candidate and not voting “present.” If that happens, McCarthy insists he still won’t drop out.

“Oh yeah, I’ll take the speaker’s fight to the floor,” McCarthy told CNN.

McCarthy also said he was willing to go through as many rounds of voting on the floor as it takes, predicting: “I’ll get there.”

Meanwhile, the California Republican’s fiercest detractors are also digging in.

Members of the hardline House Freedom Caucus met with the chamber’s parliamentarian on Wednesday in order to get a briefing on the floor rules and procedures that dictate the process for the speakership vote. And some of McCarthy’s foes are reiterating their pledge to oppose him on the floor and calling on the GOP leader to drop out of the race now so they can start the search for a serious alternative.

“He can avoid it now,” said Arizona Rep. Andy Biggs, a former co-chair of the Freedom Caucus who lost to McCarthy for his conference’s nomination to be speaker, of a potential floor fight. “He doesn’t have the votes. We can move to different candidates. I’m willing to entertain anyone else.”

The commitment from both camps to take the speakership battle to January is shaping up to be a political game of chicken, with both sides signaling they’re willing to call the other’s bluff. But most Republicans are hoping it won’t come to that, worrying it would set the wrong tone as they enter into power and prepare for a tough two years of governing while working to protect their narrow majority.

“I don’t want to see that happen. I can’t guarantee that not happening right now,” Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Trump ally who is backing McCarthy, said of a speaker showdown on the floor. “But the goal is to stop that from happening, to get everybody on the same page, and create unity so that we’re ready from day one.”

Added Tennessee Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, another McCarthy backer: “My hope is that we have unity and get this done on the first ballot, but we’ll see. … I’m hoping and praying for unity.”

Some Republicans think the hardliners are bluffing.

“Maybe they’re just trying to promote themselves a little bit?” said Rep. Greg Pence of Indiana, adding that conservative members’ views behind closed doors are more collegial than they may be publicly.

Asked if he could instead vote for McCarthy’s No. 2, Steve Scalise, for speaker, Pence said: “I’m voting for Kevin McCarthy. He’s gonna win.”

Tension builds in GOP Conference

The last time a vote for speaker had to go to multiple ballots was in 1923. And the longest time in history it took to elect a speaker lasted two months, with a total of 133 ballots.

In recent weeks, part of McCarthy’s pitch to his critics has been that if they don’t unify, then Democrats could theoretically band together and peel off a few Republicans to elect the next speaker on the floor.

“Having a challenge on the floor is never going to be positive and really turn the floor over the Democrats,” McCarthy told reporters this week.

Biggs, however, brushed off that possibility. And most Republicans don’t see it as a serious threat, though they privately acknowledge the speaker’s race could go to multiple ballots.

“I don’t buy it,” Biggs said. “Name the Democrat that a Republican would vote for.”

Some moderates and mainstream Republicans are growing increasingly frustrated with their colleagues’ threats to cause chaos on the floor. And some of them have a warning of their own: if the vote goes to a second ballot or more, they plan to just keep voting for McCarthy – potentially foiling the anti-McCarthy group’s plans to force him out of contention in the hopes of getting lawmakers to rally around an alternative.

“Many of us are perturbed. We took a vote and McCarthy got 85%,” said Nebraska Rep. Don Bacon, who represents a district that Joe Biden carried in 2020, referring to the internal GOP election when Republicans backed McCarthy to be their nominee. “The right thing to do is coalesce around someone who has broad support. To do otherwise weakens the conference and hurts the team.”

So far, at least five House Republicans have vowed to oppose McCarthy for speaker – a problem for him since he likely can only afford to lose four GOP lawmakers – though some of them have expressed openness to negotiating.

McCarthy’s foes say he has a much bigger problem.

“Well, I think it’s a much larger number than people realize,” Good said of the McCarthy “no” votes. “My hope would be that more of them will start to come out publicly. So it just becomes increasingly clear that he doesn’t have the votes and we need to consider other candidates.”

To win over holdouts, McCarthy has brokered negotiations on potential rules changes designed to empower rank-and-file members, such as enabling members to offer more amendments and giving them more notice before fast-tracked bills come to the floor.

And McCarthy has also made public professions about what he would do as speaker, from dangling a potential impeachment inquiry over Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to threatening to investigate the House select committee investigating January 6, 2021 — both top priorities on the right.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” said Pennsylvania Rep. Scott Perry, the current Freedom Caucus chief. But he added: “I think there is a burgeoning realization and acknowledgment that this place is broken. That’s a start.”

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