As Kevin McCarthy begins the final descent of his turbulent bid for the speaker’s gavel, Republicans are bracing to see whether he lands the plane or crashes and burns.
After weeks of intense, down-to-the-wire negotiations, the California Republican is about out of time to lock down the needed 218 votes. With his yearslong effort to claim the speakership trapped in limbo, he’ll first meet with his party’s conference Tuesday morning behind closed doors, likely making his final case before members head to the House floor to vote.
Twice McCarthy has been on the precipice of taking the gavel, and twice a group of conservatives has worked to block him from the House’s most powerful perch. He bowed out of the race in 2015 amid the House Freedom Caucus opposition. This time, his allies say he’s prepared to fight until the potentially bitter end.
“He’s steadfast. He’s in this until hell freezes,” said Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a McCarthy backer.
How long that fight will last is still unclear. McCarthy supporters say they expect him to keep Republicans on the House floor, instead of trying to adjourn for off-the-floor strategy sessions between ballots, as he hopes to grind down his opponents. And while a speakership vote has gone past the first ballot only once since the Civil War, Republicans are mentally preparing not just for multiple ballots, but also multiple days of voting.
When asked on Monday whether he had the necessary backing to claim the gavel, McCarthy predicted he would have a “good day” but quipped that he didn’t want to “take away all the excitement.”
It’s an inauspicious start not just for McCarthy, but also for a conference that already suffered a disappointing midterm election — attaining only a slim majority despite optimistic projections. Even if McCarthy manages to lock down the votes, he’s had to make key promises that guarantee his leadership would be severely weakened.
And while many House Republicans used to say McCarthy had the speakership in the bag, conversations surrounding his fate have dramatically shifted to a constant swirl of public posturing, endless hypothesizing, frequent strategizing and even some subtle shadow jockeying.
Five conservatives — Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Andy Biggs of Arizona, Bob Good of Virginia, Matt Rosendale of Montana and Ralph Norman of South Carolina — are still vowing to oppose the Republican leader, and other members remain publicly undecided. McCarthy has worked fervently to lock down support, releasing a long list of concessions he’s prepared to make on rules changes, including making it easier to depose a speaker.
But so far it hasn’t moved his staunch opposition. Gaetz, after a meeting with McCarthy, reiterated that he believes there are at least five “no” votes, including him, heading into Tuesday. That’s sparked some claims that McCarthy’s opponents aren’t negotiating in good faith.
In a significant win for conservatives, McCarthy set the number of Republican backers needed to force a vote on deposing the speaker at five, to the dismay of some rank-and-file members. It’s an about-face from just weeks ago, when the conference set the threshold to prompt such a vote, known as the motion to vacate, at a majority of its members. And some conservatives argue that’s not good enough — they want one member to be able to force such a motion.
“I still think that, at the end of the day, Kevin gets it. And the people that [stand] to lose are the hardliners that have negotiated in bad faith,” said Rep. Guy Reschenthaler (R-Pa.), the current chief deputy whip.
McCarthy and allies like Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) say the latest rules package release has moved votes his way. But other members signaled otherwise.
Nine on-the-fence Republicans issued a letter after the rules package was released to say the proposed changes aren’t yet enough to win them over. More ominously, they warned that his recent commitments come “almost impossibly late to address continued deficiencies ahead of the opening of the 118th Congress on January 3rd.”
“Nothing changes when nothing changes, and that must start from the top. Time to make the change or get out of the way,” Freedom Caucus Chair Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) tweeted on Sunday night.
The signatures on that letter included three incoming members who some House Republicans think could vote against McCarthy. One of them, Rep.-elect Anna Paulina Luna of Florida, told Steve Bannon on his podcast last week that she’s “gotten a lot of emails from people” urging her to oppose the California Republican and that “I do listen to what my constituents say.”
The additional names on the letter represent a fresh shot in the arm for McCarthy detractors, as speculation has swirled for weeks about who would publicly oppose the GOP leader besides the initial five. While some members waffled in private Freedom Caucus meetings about where their support stood, no others have stepped forward.
Meanwhile, it sparked frustration from McCarthy’s supporters, who questioned what else he’d have to offer his opponents in order to secure their votes.
“We’ve gone really, really far on a lot of fronts. … People can’t ask any more from him. He’s done everything he possibly can,” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), the co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, said about McCarthy, whom he characterized as “not giving up.”
Bacon added that he thought McCarthy had “done enough” describing the negotiations so far as “unilateral concessions without getting anything back in return.” And while lawmakers expect that McCarthy might cut more, smaller deals before the speaker vote, some are warning that allowing just one member to force a vote to depose a speaker would be a step too far.
“That would have a lot of pushback,” Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.) said about the possibility.
Still, some Republicans say there are members who have kept quiet but will publicly announce they oppose McCarthy the day of the vote, limiting his opportunities to win their support. Others have questioned whether the anti-McCarthy coalition is arranging to have more members vote against him on a second ballot, in an attempt to make the Californian look weaker.
And there’s speculation that other names besides Biggs, who has acted as a McCarthy opposition figurehead but is not mounting a real bid for the gavel, will emerge to challenge McCarthy.
“You’ll see that name tomorrow on the second ballot,” Good, one of McCarthy’s detractors, teased during a Fox News interview on Monday.
On the other side of the rebellion, McCarthy’s allies have launched multiple efforts to communicate their unwavering support — appearing on news shows, sending letters to the conference and donning “O.K.” pins that stand for “Only Kevin.” But other members said the move stunk of defensiveness, if not desperation.
Democratic leaders, meanwhile, aren’t looking to make it any easier on McCarthy. They’ve told their members not to miss any ballots, which would have lowered the number of votes the GOP leader needed, and to vote for the incoming minority leader, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.).
Some Republicans say McCarthy should make a deal to persuade about a dozen Democrats to leave the floor after several ballots, allowing him to skate through despite a handful of opponents among his own conference. Others, like Bacon, have floated that if conservatives block McCarthy, they could work with a band of centrist Democrats to elect a more moderate Republican instead.
But after weeks of behind-the-scenes drama, Republicans say they are ready to take the fight to the floor.
“We’re negotiating with Jell-O,” Armstrong said. ”It’s just time to start voting and keep voting.”