WASHINGTON — In his quest to rise to House speaker, Kevin McCarthy is charging straight into history — potentially becoming the first nominee in 100 years unable to win the job on a first-round floor vote.
The increasingly real prospect of a messy fight over the speaker’s gavel on Day One of the new Congress on Jan. 3 is worrying House Republicans, who are bracing for the spectacle. They have been meeting endlessly in private at the Capitol trying to resolve the standoff.
Taking hold of a perilously slim 222-seat Republican majority in the 435-member House and facing a handful of defectors, McCarthy is working furiously to reach the 218-vote threshold typically needed to become speaker.
“The fear is, that if we stumble out of the gate,” said Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., a McCarthy ally, then the voters who sent the Republicans to Washington “will revolt over that and they will feel let down.”
Not since the disputed election of 1923 has a candidate for House speaker faced the public scrutiny of convening a new session of Congress only to have it descend into political chaos, with one vote after another, until a new speaker is chosen. At that time, it eventually took a grueling nine ballots to secure the gavel.
McCarthy, a Republican from Bakersfield, California, who was first elected in 2006 and who remains allied with Donald Trump, has signaled he is willing to go as long as it takes in a floor vote to secure the speaker’s job he has wanted for years. The former president has endorsed McCarthy, and is said to be making calls on McCarthy’s behalf. McCarthy has given no indication he would step aside, as he did in 2015 when it was clear he did not have the support.
But McCarthy also is acknowledging the holdouts won’t budge. “It’s all in jeopardy,” McCarthy said Friday in an interview with conservative Hugh Hewitt.
The dilemma reflects not just McCarthy’s uncertain stature among his peers, but also the shifting political norms in Congress as party leaders who once wielded immense power — the names of Cannon, Rayburn and now Pelosi adorn House meeting rooms and office buildings — are seeing it slip away in the 21st century.
Rank-and-file lawmakers have become political stars on their own terms, able to shape their brands on social media and raise their own money for campaigns. House members are less reliant than they once were on the party leaders to dole out favors in exchange for support.
The test for McCarthy, if he is able to shore up the votes on Jan. 3 or in the days that follow, will be whether he emerges a weakened speaker, forced to pay an enormous price for the gavel, or whether the potentially brutal power struggle emboldens his new leadership.
“Does he want to go down as the first speaker candidate in 100 years to go to the floor and have to essentially, you know, give up?” said Jeffrey A. Jenkins, a professor at the University of Southern California and co-author of “Fighting for the Speakership.”
“But if he pulls this rabbit out of the hat, you know, maybe he actually has more of the right stuff.”
Republicans met in private this past week for another lengthy session as McCarthy’s detractors, largely a handful of conservative stalwarts from the Freedom Caucus, demand changes to House rules that would diminish the power of the speaker’s office.
The Freedom Caucus members and others want assurances they will be able to help draft legislation from the ground up and have opportunities to amend bills during the floor debates. They want enforcement of the 72-hour rule that requires bills to be presented for review before voting.
Outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the past two Republican speakers, John Boehner and Paul Ryan, faced similar challenges, but they were able to rely on the currency of their position to hand out favors, negotiate deals and otherwise win over opponents to keep them in line — for a time. Boehner and Ryan ended up retiring early.
But the central demand by McCarthy’s opponents’ could go too far: They want to reinstate a House rule that allows any single lawmaker to file a motion to “vacate the chair,” essentially allowing a floor vote to boot the speaker from office.
The early leaders of the Freedom Caucus, under Mark Meadows, the former North Carolina congressman turned Trump’s chief of staff, wielded the little-used procedure as a threat over Boehner, and later, over Ryan.
It wasn’t until Pelosi seized the gavel the second time, in 2019, that House Democrats voted to do away with the rule and require a majority vote of the caucus to mount a floor vote challenge to the speaker.
Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, said the 200-year-old rule was good enough for Thomas Jefferson, so it’s one he would like to see in place.
“We’re still a long way from fixing this institution the way it needs to be fixed,” Roy told reporters Thursday at the Capitol.
What’s unclear for McCarthy is even if he gives in to the various demands being made by the conservatives, whether that will be enough for them to drop their opposition to his leadership.
Several House Republicans said they do not believe McCarthy will ever be able to overcome the detractors.
“I don’t believe he’s going to get to 218 votes,” said Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., among the holdouts. “And so I look forward to when that recognition sets in and, for the good of the country, for the good of the Congress, he steps aside, and we can consider other candidates.”
The opposition to McCarthy has promoted a counteroffensive from other groups of House Republicans who are becoming more vocal in their support of the GOP leader — and more concerned about the fallout if the start of the new Congress descends into an internal party fight.
Rep. David Joyce, R-Ohio, who leads the Republican Governance Group, was wearing an “O.K.” button on his lapel — meaning, “Only Kevin,” he explained.
Some have suggested that the opponents to McCarthy could simply vote “present,” lowering the threshold for reaching a majority — a tactic Pelosi and Boehner both used to win with fewer than 218 votes.
While some have suggested threatening the detractors with removal from their committee assignments or other retribution, Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-S.D., a leader of another conservative governance caucus, said: “Anybody who thinks that the holdouts are going to be bullied into compliance doesn’t understand how this town works.”
Retiring Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., who recalled that then-Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia dropped out of the race in 1998 when he didn’t have the votes, cautioned McCarthy against backing down.
“My advice to Kevin is, you got to go to the finish line,” Upton said. “You can’t fold the cards. You got to make these folks vote — and vote.”