With control of the House still unresolved, Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy maneuvered Monday to lock up support to become the next House speaker, pushing past the objections of his right flank and embarking on a bruising path to seize the gavel from Nancy Pelosi if Democrats lose the majority.
House Republicans met behind closed doors late in the day to hear the pitch from McCarthy, who reaches for the speaker’s gavel at a tumultuous time for the party.
Leaders on Capitol Hill face a backlash over their disappointing performance in the midterm elections, which some blame on Donald Trump, as Republicans reassess their relationship with the former president. Trump is poised to announce his 2024 bid for the White House on Tuesday, the same day as the House GOP leadership elections.
McCarthy exited the two-hour meeting appearing confident ahead of Tuesday's internal party vote — a crucial first test.
“The one thing you got to think about is it’s going to be a tight majority so everyone is going to have to work together," McCarthy said.
"We’ll be successful as a team and we’ll be defeated as an individual if we don’t all work together,” he said.
The GOP leadership elections arrive at an inflection point for the Republican Party after the dismal election. McCarthy had promised big wins, with the most diverse class ever of Republican recruits, but voters rejected many of more extreme candidates and election deniers beholden to Trump. Instead, Republicans are limping toward the 218 seats needed for a majority, but votes are still being tabulated in several key states, including McCarthy’s own California.
It's not just McCarthy's leadership that is in question ahead of Tuesday's party votes — his entire team, including Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Minn., the campaign chairman, faces blowback from the party's losses. Across the Capitol, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is also encountering opposition from his right flank ahead of his own leadership election Wednesday.
Tuesday's vote is a first step in McCarthy's pursuit of the gavel, ahead of the more formal vote when the new Congress convenes in January. The weeks ahead promise to be a grueling period of hardball negotiations between McCarthy and rank-and-file Republicans as he tries to appease their demands and rack up the support he will need in the new year.
“I don’t just automatically assume heir apparent, necessarily,” said Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., who said he is still studying his choice for House speaker, a position second in line to the president.
“We are voting for somebody who is going to be two heartbeats from the presidency,” he said. “To me that automatically makes this one of the most important votes you’ll take as a member of Congress."
Republicans are torn in the Trump era between those remaining loyal to the former president and those who blame him for the midterm losses and prefer to move on from his “Make America Great Again” brand. Some lawmakers begged off from joining Trump at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida for his announcement Tuesday because of their own work on Capitol Hill.
The former president backs McCarthy for speaker, but the two have had a rocky relationship. Even Trump's support is no guarantee McCarthy will reach the 218 votes needed to become speaker.
The conservative Freedom Caucus lawmakers who typically align with Trump are demanding concessions from McCarthy before giving him their backing. They have have a long list of asks — from prime positions on House committees to guarantees they can have a role in shaping legislation.
“I’m willing to support anybody that’s willing to change dramatically how things are done here,” Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., the chairman of the Freedom Caucus and a Trump ally, said after meeting privately with McCarthy.
It’s a familiar dynamic for House Republicans, one that befell their most recent Republican speakers — John Boehner and Paul Ryan — who both retired early rather than try to lead a party splintered by its far-right flank.
McCarthy survived those earlier battles between party factions, but the 57-year-old was forced to back out of an earlier bid for the speaker’s job in 2015 when it was clear he did not have support from conservatives.
Asked what will happen if he can’t get to 218 votes from his colleagues, McCarthy touched back to those earlier campaigns for the gavel.
“Ask Paul Ryan. Ask everyone who ran for speaker before. Nobody has had 218,” McCarthy said.
If Republicans succeed in wining majority control of the House once final votes are tallied from the midterm election, it will likely be by the slimmest of margins. That means McCarthy will have little room to maneuver or make deals with the various factions in the GOP because virtually every vote will be needed to move the party’s agenda.
McCarthy huddled privately with several Freedom Caucus members ahead of Monday’s session, and appeared to answer many of their questions later as he spoke at the leadership forum.
While newly elected lawmakers arrived for orientation Monday, there are questions over who, exactly, will be voting Tuesday — with some of the House races still undecided. He needs to clear a simple majority Tuesday, ahead of the formal vote for speaker in January, once the new Congress convenes.
“Leader McCarthy said, ‘We’re going to run the House in the way that you want me to run it,’” Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said as he exited the meeting.
Issa said McCarthy drew applause when he suggested he would do as Democrats did in booting certain lawmakers off their committees. Democrats had forced conservative Reps. Marjorie Taylor Green and Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., off their committees over their incendiary remarks.
“He will not be afraid to make those decisions, if appropriately brought to him,” Issa said.
With no one rising to challenge McCarthy, veteran lawmakers said if McCarthy is able to clear the majority in Tuesday's vote, they hope the naysayers fall in line.
"You just would hope that people respect the will of the conference, and I think it’d be pretty overwhelming tomorrow what that will is,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla.
Of McCarthy, he said: “He’s our best strategist. He’s our best fundraiser. He’s our best candidate recruiter. Isn’t that the guy you want to lead you? I think so.”
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