Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s remarks that suggested House Republicans created a taxpayer-funded Benghazi Committee to help tank Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers have handed ammunition to GOP critics trying to draft a conservative to challenge him for Speaker.
The California Republican is still the favorite to replace Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who will resign from Congress Oct. 30. McCarthy is believed to have locked up the 124 GOP votes needed to be nominated for the top job during a closed-door GOP conference election set for next Thursday.
But the rapidly rising lawmaker is as many as 50 GOP votes shy of the 218 he needs to formally win the Speaker’s gavel in a roll call on the House floor next month, according to GOP sources who have been whipping votes against McCarthy.
Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzSecret Service agents set for discipline after fence-jumping incident: report Overnight Cybersecurity: House Intel chair says surveillance collected on Trump transition team House Oversight grills law enforcement on facial recognition tech MORE (R-Utah), chairman of the influential Oversight and Government Reform Committee, doubled down Thursday on his call for McCarthy to apologize for his Benghazi remarks, calling them “absolutely inappropriate” and “absolutely wrong” during an appearance on MSNBC.
Another Oversight colleague, conservative Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.), echoed Chaffetz on CNN, saying McCarthy “owes an apology” to the families of the four Americans killed during the 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and has “diminished the work” of the panel’s chairman, Rep. Trey GowdyTrey GowdyGowdy: Nunes briefed president on matters 'unrelated' to Russia probe Sunday shows preview: Aftermath of failed healthcare bill Has Putin already won? He divides US intel from political leaders MORE (R-S.C.).
Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind.), who hasn’t decided whom he’ll back for Speaker, said that if McCarthy’s remarks caused confusion, “I think it would be good for him to clarify.”
“It’s important for the next Speaker of the House to separate policy from politics,” Stutzman told The Hill.
Whether it was a moment of candor or simply an inartful turn of phrase, McCarthy’s comments unnerved fellow Republicans just a week before they will gather behind closed doors to nominate a new Speaker.
Ardent McCarthy foes seized on the moment as evidence the current No. 2 leader isn’t ready to become the face of, and chief communicator for, the House GOP.
“It really concerned a lot of members. It plays right into [Democratic Leader] Nancy Pelosi’s hands. It looks like a major mistake,” said Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), chairman of the House Tea Party Caucus, which will join other conservative groups in interviewing candidates for Speaker on Tuesday.
“He didn’t gain any more votes by this and he doesn’t have 218. Did he lose votes over this? I don’t know,” Huelskamp added. “But I think it’s hurt his credibility within the Republican conference.”
Facing a chorus of GOP calls to address the controversy, McCarthy returned to Fox News on Thursday night to walk back his comments. He said he already told Gowdy he regretted his statement and insisted the gaffe would not hurt his chance to become Speaker.
"It was never my intention to ever imply that this committee was political. Because we all know it is not. And it has one sole purpose: Let's find the truth wherever the truth takes us," McCarthy told host Bret Baier. "And you know what? Sometimes truth comes out, and other manners, and let's not let politics hold that back."
Two days earlier, McCarthy ignited a media firestorm by bragging that the GOP-led House Benghazi Committee had scored political points against Clinton, the former secretary of State and Democratic presidential front-runner.
“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” McCarthy told Fox News’s Sean Hannity. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today?"
Democrats had a field day. Pelosi, current minority leader and former Speaker, called McCarthy’s remarks “a stunning admission.” When he was told McCarthy clarified the committee is not political, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the Benghazi panel’s top Democrat, replied, “It’s bull!”
“This has been a one-sided investigation from the beginning to the present,” Cummings told The Hill. “Democrats have been left out of the process.”
Even some of McCarthy’s strongest backers were having trouble explaining his comments.
Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) called the incident “a rookie mistake,” and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) called it “unfortunate.”
“I don’t believe he actually saw Benghazi as an opportunity to take down Hillary, but it was an unfortunate way of saying it, and I think he probably realizes that,” Kinzinger said.
Rep. Tom McClintock, a fellow California Republican who served with McCarthy in the state Legislature, said he wouldn’t abandon his friend after a single gaffe. But when a reporter read him McCarthy’s remarks, McClintock made clear he didn’t agree with his characterization of the committee.
“Those comments don’t reflect my views, they don’t reflect the views of my colleagues and I doubt they’re the views of Kevin McCarthy,” McClintock told The Hill, just as McCarthy and his security detail raced by. “Every now and then, we say things that are inartful or misleading or incomplete.”
McCarthy, 50, began his fast-moving career at age 21, when he opened his own delicatessen with $5,000 he won in the lottery. He later worked as an aide to Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.), spent time in the California State Assembly, then won Thomas’s House seat when he retired in 2006.
Less than a decade later, McCarthy is on the cusp of winning the Speaker’s gavel, a job that requires raising enormous sums of campaign cash and speaking in front of the TV cameras at weekly news conferences and on Sunday shows.
But the English language has never been McCarthy’s strong suit. His off-the-cuff remarks are sometimes incoherent, and he’s been known to make up words. “I have visited Poland, 'Hungria,' Estonia,” he said in a major foreign policy address this week. The leader told Fox News on Thursday that the Benghazi panel has been applauded by “all sides of the aisle.”
“Kevin McCarthy is about to ascend to the highest office in the House of Representatives and become second in line to the presidency,” Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote this week. “But there is a problem: The speaker-apparent apparently still can’t speak.”
If McCarthy can’t secure 218 votes on the House floor in the first vote of a post-Boehner Congress, it would trigger other rounds of voting, with centrists and hard-line conservatives engaging in all-out warfare. But no one knows for sure who would emerge from the dust.
Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) broached the topic during a GOP whip team meeting Thursday morning. The Agriculture Committee chairman asked who would be named Speaker if the 246 House Republicans could not reach agreement on the next Speaker.
Rep. Luke Messer (R-Ind.), the Republican Policy Committee chairman, joked that of course it should be the man wielding the Agriculture gavel, according to a source in the room.
But some conservatives have been pushing the idea of a Speaker Gowdy if McCarthy stumbles. Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who is extremely popular in the conference, could also probably get 218 votes, though neither man wants the job.
Florida Rep. Daniel Webster is the only Republican challenging McCarthy in the Speaker's race.
Kinzinger, who considers himself a member of the unofficial “governing caucus,” said the next Speaker “absolutely” needs to be careful about how he chooses words and communicates the party message.
“I think anybody in the caucus who says they are not going to vote for McCarthy after this is probably just using this as an excuse to leverage something else,” Kinzinger said in the interview just off the House floor.
“I think he’s ready. He’s had a meteoric rise. We’ve had turmoil here and he’s just been ready to go,” he said. “Everybody has a learning curve and this will be part of that, but we have full faith in him.”