McCarthy fight for Speakership looms over lame-duck December

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.)
Greg Nash
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) addresses reporters following the House Republican Leadership Election for the 118th session of Congress on Tuesday, November 15, 2022.

For House Republicans, much of the next five weeks will be overshadowed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) quest for the Speakership amid opposition from a handful of hard-line right-wing members that threatens to sink his bid.

McCarthy has made moves to boost his conservative credentials in recent weeks as a minority criticizes his leadership. Internal House Republican Conference debates over rules and McCarthy’s management of lame-duck legislative issues could also sway his position with those skeptical of his leadership.

The GOP leader won his party’s nomination for Speaker earlier this month against a long-shot challenge from Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), a former chair of the hard-line House Freedom Caucus, in a 188 to 31 vote, with five others voting for neither of the two. But that is just the first step in McCarthy’s quest, and he needs to win majority support on the House floor on Jan. 3 to secure the Speakership.

At least five House GOP members — Reps. Bob Good (Va.), Ralph Norman (S.C.), Matt Rosendale (Mont.), Matt Gaetz (Fla.) and Biggs — explicitly say or strongly indicate they will not vote for McCarthy on the floor. And with Republicans winning a slimmer-than-expected majority of around 222 seats to around 213 Democrats, that puts McCarthy’s Speakership in the danger zone.

McCarthy needs 218 votes on the floor, assuming every House member casts a ballot for a Speaker candidate and there are no absences or “present” votes, though it is possible for a Speaker to be elected with fewer than 218 votes.

If no one wins a majority, the vote will go to another ballot, a scenario that last happened a century ago. The longest Speakership election in history occurred in the 1850s and took 133 ballots over two months.

Allies of the GOP leader maintain optimism that he will secure the Speakership.

“I’m of the opinion that on Jan. 3 we’ll come together as a conference and elect Kevin McCarthy to be Speaker of the House,” Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), who is likely to chair the House Oversight and Reform Committee next year, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “There are certainly five to eight members that have said they’re leaning towards voting no against Kevin McCarthy … but I’m hopeful at the end of the day that we will come together as a conference and elect Kevin.”

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) on “Fox News Sunday” pointed out a key dynamic in McCarthy’s favor: There is no viable Republican alternative to McCarthy.

“He’s worked hard. He’s accomplished the goal, albeit a slim one, of winning back the House majority, and he deserves it. And I don’t believe there’s anyone else in our conference who could get to 218,” Fitzpatrick said.

But Biggs said on the “Conservative Review” podcast that he thinks the number of “hard noes” on McCarthy could be around 20 GOP members, which would sink his bid. Biggs has also predicted that an alternative consensus candidate will emerge before Jan. 3.

Conservative firebrand Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has broken with her Freedom Caucus colleagues to become one of McCarthy’s most vocal supporters, warning that moderate Republicans could join Democrats and elect a compromise moderate Speaker. McCarthy skeptics have dismissed that prospect as a red herring.

This week, the House Republican Conference will consider another batch of rules change proposals that includes some requests from the Freedom Caucus. Those include a measure to ban earmarks, which were brought back in this Congress as “community project funding” after a decadelong ban.

Republicans will also elect new regional representatives this week under an expanded structure that gives more power to rank-and-file members. Those members will be part of the House Republican Steering Committee, the body of a few dozen members that controls committee and chairmanship assignments for the party.

McCarthy said earlier this month that the new map that increases the number of representatives from 13 to 19 pushes “power further down to more regions, more to the conference itself” and “dilutes the power greater to the members” — addressing a request from conservatives.

In another apparent gesture to critics, McCarthy during a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border before Thanksgiving called for Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to resign or potentially face impeachment. 

“Let’s not be ambiguous. Mayorkas needs [to be] impeached. Period. No hesitation,” Biggs responded in a tweet.

McCarthy also recently reiterated a promise to remove three Democrats from committee assignments: Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) from the House Intelligence Committee over Schiff’s handling of investigations of former President Trump’s ties with Russia and Swalwell’s relationship with an alleged Chinese spy, and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from the House Foreign Affairs Committee over what he says are past antisemitic comments.

Schiff hit back at McCarthy’s promise on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.

“McCarthy’s problem is not with what I have said about Russia. McCarthy’s problem is he can’t get to 218 without Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar and Matt Gaetz, and so he will do whatever they ask,” Schiff said.

McCarthy also said in a Facebook post last week that the House will start every day with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance with “no exceptions,” a custom that has been happening daily on the House floor for decades, as outlined by the House rules. He also said that the text of the Constitution will be read aloud on the House floor on the first day of the new congressional session, which McCarthy tweeted “hasn’t been done in years.” 

Another immediate test of McCarthy will be his management of his conference during the lame-duck legislative session. Congress’s to-do list before the end of the year includes the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a Dec. 16 government funding deadline and a White House request for an additional $37.7 billion in Ukraine assistance.

Ukraine funding is a likely flashpoint for House Republicans, with many conservative members opposed to any new funding and others who say there should be funding for military support but are skeptical of economic and humanitarian aid.

And Biggs suggested on “Conservative Review” that Republicans should hold up the NDAA over provisions he described as “woke crap” and to push the military to reinstate service members who were discharged due to refusal to comply with COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

“Let’s hold the bill hostage. Let’s leverage what we have,” Biggs said. “Leverage only happens once in a while when you’re in the minority.”

McCarthy said after House GOP leadership elections this month that he thinks final passage of the NDAA should be delayed until after Republicans take control of the House. The House passed a version of the NDAA earlier this year, which McCarthy supported and the Freedom Caucus opposed, and the Senate is considering its version of the bill during the lame-duck session.

“I’ve watched what the Democrats have done in many of these, especially in the NDAA and the wokeism that they want to bring in there,” McCarthy said. “I actually believe the NDAA should hold up until the first of the year, and let’s get it right.”

Tags Andy Biggs Fight House GOP James Comer Kevin McCarthy Kevin McCarthy lame-duck Republicans Speakership

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