WASHINGTON — Republican leader Kevin McCarthy is on the verge of losing the first ballot for president, likely sending the House to a second ballot after more than five Republicans opposed his nomination.
The vote is underway, but without those Republicans, McCarthy would need the support of Democrats, which is highly unlikely. The vote ends a week-long standoff between McCarthy and his conservative critics.
A small group of far-right members close to former President Donald Trump have vowed to stand together in denying McCarthy of California the speaker’s gavel. Because the new 222-212 Republican majority is so slim, just five Republican lawmakers could prevent him from getting the 218 votes he needs to win in the first round. That would send the process to multiple votes, and almost certain chaos on the floor.
The last time this happened was exactly 100 years ago.
McCarthy was nominated by Rep. Elise Stefanik, RN.Y., who called him «a proud conservative with a tireless work ethic.»
«Kevin McCarthy has earned the presidency of the House of the People,» said Stefanik.
Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., nominated Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Ariz., as alternative speaker to McCarthy.
Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Calif., nominated Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York for speaker, while throwing shade at Republicans in his speech.
“House Democrats are united behind one speaker,” Aguilar said, adding that Jeffries “doesn’t traffic in extremism. He doesn’t humble himself or make excuses for a twice-indicted ex-president. He does not bend the knee to anyone who seeks to undermine our democracy,” Aguilar said.
«That’s not what leaders do.»
Five conservatives, the so-called Never Kevins led by Biggs and Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, said they would not vote for McCarthy under any circumstances, urging him to drop out to allow another candidate to step up.
«It’s true that we wrestled with confidence with Mr. McCarthy because time and time again his views, his positions move like sand under you,» Gaetz told reporters before the vote on Tuesday. «If you want to drain the swamp, you can’t put the biggest alligator in charge of the exercise.»
McCarthy spoke at his conference Tuesday morning, giving a fiery speech in which he called for members’ support and defended his work as a leader. Meanwhile, McCarthy’s allies have threatened some of his detractors with taking away their committee assignments, Biggs said after the meeting. Rep. Mike Rogers, Republican of Alabama, confirmed that he had «promised» those planning to vote against McCarthy that they would lose their seats on the committee.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, was particularly critical of McCarthy’s opponents Tuesday. “There is a group of people who have made a very profound miscalculation,” he said. “They have calculated that people will see them as these noble freedom fighters fighting for a cause. They can’t seem to tell what the cause is. That makes them look pretty stupid. And they’re pretty stupid.»
Gaetz and other McCarthy opponents held a news conference after Tuesday’s meeting and vowed to continue their campaign. «Forgive my determination,» he said. “This town desperately needs change, and if just a few of us have to stand in the gap to force it, we are willing to do it for as long as it takes.”
Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., another of the Never Kevins, said «nothing has changed» and predicted 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 hold the record for the longest speech ever delivered in the room. I have no problem getting a record for the most votes for speaker,» he said.
However, McCarthy’s problems are not limited to the Gaetz group. In an attempt to win the support of a separate group of Trump-aligned House Freedom Caucus members, McCarthy agreed over the weekend to a series of rule changes that would dilute his powers as a speaker.
But nine members of that group, including Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry, R-Pa., characterized their proposals as too little and too late.
In their New Year’s Day letter, they wrote that it did not address several of their demands, such as ensuring that the leadership does not work to defeat some conservative candidates in open primaries. Members also said that McCarthy’s proposed rule changes would still be too restrictive on members’ ability to expel the speaker in the middle of Congress.
«Despite some progress made,» the Freedom Caucus group wrote, «Mr. McCarthy’s statement comes incredibly late in addressing the continuing shortcomings before the opening of the 118th Congress on January 3.»
McCarthy, who is backed by Trump and easily defeated Biggs to win his party’s nomination for speaker, is not backing down. He is already moving into the speaker’s suite, and as he left the Capitol Monday, he predicted that the day of the speaker’s vote would be a «good day.»
Eager to seize the reins of their new majority, most House Republicans have publicly rallied behind McCarthy. And his staunch loyalists, who call themselves the «Only Kevins,» have vowed to go to the canvas for McCarthy and lock down any challengers who emerge.
“You can’t beat someone with anyone. So who’s going to beat McCarthy? Who will get 218 votes in plenary? Nobody but him,” moderate Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., leader of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, told reporters.
Fitzpatrick said he will vote for McCarthy «in the first round, the 1000th round and every round in between,» adding: «And there are a lot of us like that.»
The showdown could have major implications for the House. No other House business can occur until a speaker is selected, meaning floor votes, committee hearings and other congressional work will halt if Republicans can’t agree on a new leader.
That could delay further House Republican investigations into the Biden administration’s handling of the border, the response to Covid-19 and the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.
“The refusal of a small group of people to unite around who the vast majority voted hurts the entire team and will set us back from the start,” said another McCarthy ally, Rep. Don Bacon, R-Nebraska.