U.S. House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) presides over a news conference about the Save Our Sequoias Act at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., June 23, 2022.
Mary F. Calvert | Reuters
WASHINGTON — U.S. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy’s struggle to secure enough support within his party to win House speaker in January is putting key decisions on hold and potentially hindering the party’s ability to implement its agenda when it assumes the House majority next year, according to Republican congressional aides.
The California lawmaker needs 218 out of 222 Republicans in the House to elect him speaker on Jan. 3 if he wants to avoid a messy public floor fight and multiple rounds of voting. As of Tuesday afternoon, McCarthy was still short by at least five votes.
In a secret ballot vote held last month, Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., challenged McCarthy for speaker and won 31 votes to McCarthy’s 188, a small but significant bloc. Biggs said Tuesday that he plans to formally run against McCarthy in January.
Biggs is part of a small band of vocal opponents, who say there are as many as 20 members who are “hard nos,” and would vote against McCarthy in public, on the House floor. McCarthy’s allies say the real number is more like five to eight votes.
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Last Wednesday, a group of 13 conservative Republicans that included McCarthy’s loudest detractors met behind closed doors with the House parliamentarian, the chief arbiter of rules for the chamber, reportedly to learn more about the procedural steps to elect a speaker.
McCarthy also faces organized opposition from influential conservative outside groups such as FreedomWorks and the Conservative Partnership Institute, which have amplified McCarthy’s critics on social media.
Chairmanships on hold
Amid the turmoil over the speakership, Republican House leaders appear to have put a hold on making tough decisions about which members will be chosen to fill open committee chairmanships.
This includes the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax policy. Three Republicans are locked in a very public battle for the chairmanship, a decision that ultimately falls to McCarthy and his lieutenants on the Republican Steering Committee, the party’s internal leadership board.
The steering committee’s vote for Ways and Means chairman was originally expected to take place this week. But two Republican congressional aides, who asked not to be named to speak candidly about internal deliberations, said it had been put on hold — along with votes on two other open chairmans’ seats, on the Budget Committee and the Homeland Security Committee.
It was unclear how long the delay would last, but the aides said it could go on until the speakership contest is sorted out, which could be January.
A spokesman for McCarthy did not respond to questions from CNBC about the committee vote schedule.
McCarthy himself said essentially the same thing over the weekend, however, warning that Republicans who refuse to back him for speaker are “delaying our ability to govern.”
“I’m hopeful that everybody comes together, finds a way to govern together. This is what the American people want,” McCarthy said Sunday on Fox News’ Sunday Morning Futures. “Otherwise, we will be squandering this majority.”
For the moment, neither McCarthy nor his band of antagonists appears ready to “come together.”
Instead, both sides have dug in over the past week, telling reporters they’re ready to take the fight all the way to the House floor on Jan. 3.
“Oh yeah, I’ll take the speaker’s fight to the floor,” McCarthy told reporters in the Capitol recently. “We’ll have 218,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’ll get there.”
The holdout members have also escalated the fight, with all five of them saying they will not vote “present” on Jan. 3 but will instead vote against McCarthy.
A vote of “present,” rather than yes or no, would reduce the total number of votes McCarthy needed to secure a majority of the chamber, thereby helping him without explicitly voting for him.
While McCarthy and his critics both sound ready for a floor fight, this isn’t necessarily what members of the broader House Freedom Caucus want. The caucus is made of up roughly 40 of the chamber’s most conservative Republicans, many of them close allies of former President Donald Trump, including Biggs and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.
Messy floor fight
“The Freedom Caucus does not want this to go to a messy floor fight. That doesn’t help them or the party,” said a conservative strategist close to the negotiations, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks.
“The goal was never to embarrass Kevin McCarthy on the [House] floor, no one wants that,” the strategist said.
Instead, this bigger group of conservative Republicans has publicly said that what they really want is for McCarthy to greenlight changes to the rules that govern daily operations in the House.
In July, the House Freedom Caucus posted a list of their desired changes online.
The overarching goal of the changes is to rein in the enormous power of the speaker under the current rules, and give rank-and-file Republican members more say in who gets plum positions.
So far, McCarthy has not agreed to any of them.
“He’s not really negotiating with members of the Freedom Caucus, he’s still trying to pick people off one by one,” said the conservative strategist.
A spokesman for McCarthy declined to comment on his strategy.
“He thinks he can call the holdouts on their bluff, but they’re not bluffing,” said the strategist.
But while the five stalwart opponents may be impossible for McCarthy to move, other key figures in the conservative political ecosystem have proven unexpectedly persuadable.
Winning allies ‘one by one’
McCarthy has surprised both his allies and critics by locking down the support of several prominent conservatives who have clashed with him in the past.
His biggest success to date may be Greene, who announced in mid-November that she would back McCarthy for speaker.
Greene’s past promotion of conspiracy theories cost the freshman lawmaker, who just won reelection in November, her committee assignments in 2021. It also prompted McCarthy to issue a long statement condemning her prior remarks, which he said “do not represent the values or beliefs of House Republicans.”
Earlier this year, however, McCarthy promised to lift the ban on Greene and seat her on committees “just like any other member.”
A spokesman for McCarthy did not respond to questions about how he won her support for his speaker bid, but Greene recently drew a clear line between McCarthy’s decision to elevate her status within the GOP caucus and his fitness to be speaker.
“To be the best Speaker of the House and to please the base, he’s going to give me a lot of power and a lot of leeway,” she told The New York Times in October. “And if he doesn’t, they’re going to be very unhappy about it. I think that’s the best way to read that. And that’s not in any way a threat at all. I just think that’s reality.”
In late November, McCarthy visited the Texas border and announced that he would launch investigations of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas — a longtime wish of Freedom Caucus members. Greene praised the announcement as a sign of McCarthy’s alignment with conservative priorities.
“McCarthy is ten times more politically talented than [former GOP speakers] Paul Ryan or John Boehner,” said the conservative strategist, “and that’s a factor here, too.”
The most noise
The strategist also noted that in recent weeks, several influential conservative voices, including Charlie Kirk, Mike Cernovich and Mark Levin, have all publicly spoken out in favor of McCarthy’s bid for speaker.
There could be similar deals McCarthy needs to make with the moderate faction of the House GOP, whose members are reportedly taking a deliberately low-key stance on the speaker’s race, letting the Freedom Caucus firebrands draw a lot of attention while they focus on policy.
Rep. Dave Joyce of Ohio, who leads a moderate bloc known as the Republican Governance Group, recently pushed back against the idea that the Freedom Caucus would be dictating the agenda in the House.
“They make the most noise, but as far as being productive that’s not necessarily true,” Joyce recently told Fox News. “It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors.”
More than 20 members of the Republican Governance Group signed an open letter last week to their fellow Republicans, urging those in the anti-McCarthy camp to “put the posturing aside” and unite behind the party leader.
While the letter called on Republicans to set aside their differences, it also drew a line in the sand.
“Make no mistake, we will not allow this Conference to be dragged down a path to a paralyzed House that weakens our hard-fought majority,” they wrote.