McCarthy’s speaker bid in peril after Republican defections deny him majority

WASHINGTON — Republican leader Kevin McCarthy is poised to lose the first vote for speaker, likely sending the House to a second ballot after more than five Republicans opposed his nomination.

The vote is ongoing, but without those Republicans, McCarthy would need Democratic support, which is highly unlikely. The vote caps a weekslong standoff between McCarthy and his conservative detractors.

A small band of far-right members close to former President Donald Trump had been vowing to stick together to deny McCarthy, of California, the speaker’s gavel. Because the GOP’s new 222-212 majority is so thin, as few as five GOP lawmakers are able to block him from winning the 218-vote majority to win on the first round. That would send the process to multiple ballots — and almost certain chaos on the floor — for the first time in 100 years.

Five conservatives — the so-called Never Kevins led by Biggs and Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida — said they wouldn’t vote for McCarthy under any circumstance, and urged him to drop out to allow another candidate to step forward.

“It’s true we struggle with trust with Mr. McCarthy because time and again his viewpoints, his positions, they shift like sands underneath you,” Gaetz told reporters ahead of the vote Tuesday. “If you want to drain the swamp, you cannot put the biggest alligator in charge of the exercise.”

McCarthy was nominated by Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who earned a standing ovation from the vast majority of the Republican caucus for her speech praising McCarthy as “a proud conservative with a tireless work ethic.”

“Kevin McCarthy has earned the speakership of the People’s House,” Stefanik said.

Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., nominated Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., for speaker as an alternative to McCarthy.

Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., nominated Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York as speaker, while throwing shade at the Republicans in his speech.

“House Democrats are united behind a speaker,” Aguilar said, adding Jeffries “does not traffic in extremism. He does not grovel to or make excuses for a twice-impeached former president. He does not a bend a knee to anyone who would seek to undermine our democracy.”

“That’s not what leaders do,” Aguilar said.

McCarthy spoke to his conference Tuesday morning, giving a fiery speech in which he called for members’ support and defended his work as leader. McCarthy’s allies, meanwhile, have threatened some of his detractors with having their committee assignments taken away, Biggs said after the meeting. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., confirmed he had “promised” those planning to vote against McCarthy that they would lose their committee positions.

Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, was particularly critical of McCarthy’s opponents Tuesday. “There’s a group of people who have deeply miscalculated,” he said. “They’ve calculated that people will see them as these noble freedom fighters fighting for a cause. They can’t seem to say what the cause is. That makes them look pretty f—ing stupid. And they are pretty f—ing stupid.”

Gaetz and other McCarthy opponents held a news conference after Tuesday’s meeting, vowing to continue their campaign. “Pardon my resolve,” he said. “This town desperately needs change, and if it’s a few of us who have to stand in the breach to force it, we are willing to do so as long as it takes.”

Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., another of the Never Kevins, said “nothing’s changed,” predicting 10 to 15 members would oppose McCarthy.

McCarthy said he thought the meeting was “very good,” telling reporters, “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Look, I have the record for the longest speech ever on the floor. I don’t have a problem getting a record for the most votes for speaker,” he said.

McCarthy’s troubles aren’t limited to the Gaetz group, however. In a bid to win support from a separate group of Trump-aligned House Freedom Caucus members, McCarthy did agree over the weekend to a suite of rule changes that would water down his powers as speaker.

But nine members of that group, including Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry, R-Pa., characterized his proposals as too little, too late.

In their New Year’s Day letter, they wrote that he failed to address a number of their demands, like ensuring leadership doesn’t work to defeat some conservative candidates in open primary races. The members also said McCarthy’s proposed rule changes would still be too restrictive of members’ ability to oust the speaker in the middle of the Congress.

“Despite some progress achieved,” the Freedom Caucus group wrote, “Mr. McCarthy’s statement comes almost impossibly late to address continued deficiencies ahead of the opening of the 118th Congress on January 3rd.”

Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy speak with the press following a meeting with President Joe Biden and other Congressional leaders in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on Nov. 29, 2022.
Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy after a meeting with President Joe Biden and other congressional leaders at the White House on Nov. 29, 2022.Demetrius Freeman / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

McCarthy, who has Trump’s endorsement and easily defeated Biggs to win his party’s nomination for speaker, isn’t backing down. He is already moving into the speaker’s suite, and upon leaving the Capitol on Monday he predicted that the day of the speaker vote would be a “good day.”

Eager to take the reins of their new majority, most House Republicans have publicly lined up behind McCarthy. And his die-hard loyalists, who call themselves the “Only Kevins,” have pledged to go to the mat for McCarthy and block any rival who emerges. 

“You can’t beat somebody with nobody. So who’s going to beat McCarthy? Who’s going to get 218 votes on the floor? Nobody else but him,” moderate Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., a leader of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, told reporters. 

Fitzpatrick said he will vote for McCarthy “first round, 1,000th round and every one in between,” adding, “And there’s a ton of us like that.”

The showdown could have major implications for the House. No other House business can occur until a speaker is selected, which means floor votes, committee hearings and other congressional work will grind to a halt if Republicans can’t agree on a new leader.

That could delay new House GOP investigations into the Biden administration’s handling of the border, the Covid-19 response and the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

“The refusal of a small group of individuals to coalesce around who the vast majority voted for hurts the entire team and will slow us down right from the start,” said another McCarthy ally, Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb.

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