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Speaker race headed toward dramatic floor election

McCarthy opponents and supporters not budging, expect multiple ballots

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., pictured at a Dec. 14 news conference, is struggling to secure the votes needed to be elected speaker.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., pictured at a Dec. 14 news conference, is struggling to secure the votes needed to be elected speaker. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Whether or not Kevin McCarthy becomes speaker under the incoming House Republican majority, the Jan. 3 floor election to determine who will take the gavel from Nancy Pelosi is poised to be the most dramatic in a century. 

A small faction of “never Kevin” Republicans is threatening to ensure McCarthy is denied the 218 votes needed to win the speaker’s election. But a larger group of Republicans who have pledged to vote for “only Kevin” are making clear they won’t support any other returning members of Congress for the role. 

The two positions are seemingly irreconcilable, and members on both sides of the intra-party standoff predict the speaker’s election will require multiple ballots for the first time since 1923.

McCarthy and his allies are still trying to negotiate a truce that will allow him to get the votes he needs on the first ballot, but as of Friday afternoon no compromise had been reached. 

The House rules package, which the chamber will vote on after a speaker is elected, has become the primary focus of negotiations in which McCarthy could offer some concessions to his opponents. 

But McCarthy’s detractors are not all on the same page, making it difficult to come up with a rules package that would satisfy enough of those who have yet to commit to supporting his speaker bid without turning off the members who already support him.

Opposition hardened

Five Republicans — Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona, Bob Good of Virginia, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Matt Rosendale of Montana and Ralph Norman of South Carolina — have publicly broadcast plans to vote against McCarthy on Jan. 3. The five have organized as a bloc and vowed McCarthy can’t peel them off individually; any concessions he offers would be debated among all five.

The five-member bloc is powerful because four is the maximum number of GOP votes McCarthy could lose in what will be a 222-member conference and still become speaker if no one is absent or votes “present” to lower the threshold. Only members voting for a speaker candidate by name count toward determining the majority threshold McCarthy needs to win, which would be 218 if all members are present and vote for someone by name. 

Norman is viewed as the most amenable to concessions, along with other conservative House Freedom Caucus members who are not part of the bloc of five “hard” McCarthy opponents but have withheld their support for him as they’ve pushed for rule changes. But the other four have indicated the few House rules McCarthy is willing to change likely won’t be enough to win their support. 

“I don’t see any scenario where I’d support Kevin McCarthy as House Speaker. McCarthy has a track record of cutting backdoor deals with Democrats,” Biggs tweeted Thursday, along with a Fox News clip in which he made the same points.

Gaetz, the only public McCarthy opponent who is not an official member of the House Freedom Caucus, has also long said there’s no scenario in which he would vote for McCarthy.

Good and Rosendale have also been sour on McCarthy as a leader, irrespective of the rule changes they want to see.

“We must change the rules and leadership if we are going to restore functionality to congress. There are many more than 5 who recognize this,” Rosendale tweeted Friday.

His tweet linked to a clip of Florida Rep.-elect Anna Paulina Luna telling Steve Bannon on his “War Room” podcast that she’s received a lot of emails from constituents telling her not to vote for McCarthy.

“I do listen to what my constituents say,” she said. 

Motion to vacate 

Luna said a rule change the Freedom Caucus has been pushing to restore the power of a single member to offer a privileged motion to vacate the chair — the procedural mechanism for ousting a speaker — is “incredibly important” in determining how she’ll vote in the speaker’s election.

“I’m not going to be voting for anyone that doesn’t embrace that change,” she said.

The motion to vacate is the tool Freedom Caucus members used in 2015 to help force out then-Speaker John A. Boehner. McCarthy ran for speaker then but dropped out just before the conference nomination vote amid opposition from the Freedom Caucus.

Democrats changed the motion to vacate rule in 2019 after taking back the majority. Now it can only be brought up for a vote over the objection of leadership if offered at the direction of a party caucus or conference, instead of just a single member. House Republicans adopted a conference rule change in November stating that only their conference could bring forward a motion to vacate in an effort to prevent Democrats from choosing the speaker.

How the motion to vacate will be structured in House rules has been up for debate. The key question is how many members it should take to sign onto a motion to vacate resolution to make it privileged, which means it can be brought up for a floor vote over the objection of leadership.

According to a member familiar with the negotiations, Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a former Freedom Caucus chair who is supporting McCarthy’s speaker bid after he unsuccessfully ran against him for minority leader in 2018, floated a compromise that would set the threshold at five members. 

That number was chosen because with a 222-seat majority, five is the number of Republicans that could join forces with all Democrats and file a discharge petition to force legislation to the floor over leadership’s objection. 

McCarthy is fine with the five-member motion to vacate compromise but many of his allies think it’s too low and some of his opponents say it’s too high, so a deal has not yet been reached, according to the member familiar with the negotiations who requested anonymity to speak candidly about private discussions.

It was discussed Friday afternoon on a conference call McCarthy held with GOP leaders of the various ideological caucuses, known as the “five families,” a reference derived from the five family-led New York organized criminal gangs that formed the Italian American Mafia in 1931.

The five families of the Republican conference are the Freedom Caucus, the Republican Study Committee, the Republican Main Street Caucus, the Republican Governance Group and the Problem Solvers Caucus. 

‘Only Kevin’

Members of the latter three groups are the ones who’ve led the “only Kevin” movement and have said they won’t vote for anyone but McCarthy so long as he remains interested in being speaker. 

A group of 15 Republicans from battleground districts, led by Rep.-elect Michael Lawler of New York, went as far as to send a “Dear Colleague” letter Thursday saying they “are not open to any so-called shadow ‘consensus candidate’ — regardless of how many votes it takes to elect Speaker-designate McCarthy.”

Biggs, who has offered to be an alternative candidate for those who don’t want to vote for McCarthy on the first ballot, has said some House Republicans who are not in the Freedom Caucus have “quietly” approached him to express interest in serving as speaker once it becomes clear McCarthy doesn’t have enough votes. 

But McCarthy has vowed not to drop out of contention and is intent on securing the gavel, regardless of how many ballots it takes. 

Kevin McCarthy is best prepared to lead the 118th Congress, and we are prepared to vote for him for as long as it takes,” Republican Main Street Caucus Chair Dusty Johnson of South Dakota and Vice Chair Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma said in a letter Friday addressed to “Speaker-Designate McCarthy and Major Caucus Leaders.”

They said the group of more than 70 members met Thursday to discuss the speaker’s race and the rules package and that many have “strong reservations regarding lowering the threshold on the motion to vacate,” as well as demands from some McCarthy opponents to change the structure of the Republican Steering Committee that doles out committee assignments. Republicans already compromised and expanded the Steering Committee when they adopted their conference rules in November, but the expansion did not go as far as Freedom Caucus members wanted to ensure their voices were represented. 

Johnson and Bice said Main Street Caucus members wouldn’t back concessions on the rules unless McCarthy’s detractors drop their opposition. 

“Any RMSC support for rule changes will be taken off the table if Kevin McCarthy is not expediently elected as Speaker of the House on January 3,” they wrote.

The motion to vacate is far from the only House rule that McCarthy opponents want changed, and they are still seeking other concessions. For example, they’re concerned about how McCarthy will handle government spending negotiations and want guardrails in House rules to ensure he won’t agree to a massive omnibus appropriations package like the one Congress just passed for fiscal 2023, according to the member familiar with the negotiations. 

McCarthy’s message to his opponents on Friday’s conference call was that they’ve been working on the rules package for two months and it’s time for them effectively to put up or shut up, according to the member, who said the detractors are still not being transparent about what they want in order to actually vote for McCarthy.

Backup speaker Upton?

The member acknowledged that some of the opponents may never come around given their inherent distrust for McCarthy. That’s why members of the Republican Main Street Caucus, the Republican Governance Group and the Problem Solvers Caucus who have vowed only to vote for McCarthy have discussed a backup plan that wouldn’t violate their pledge not to support another sitting House Republican for speaker. 

The plan, which would only be deployed if the speaker’s election went to multiple ballots with no one budging, would be for a significant bloc of Republicans to work with Democrats to nominate retiring Michigan GOP Rep. Fred Upton for speaker. The position does not need to be held by a lawmaker, but no Congress has ever elected a speaker that wasn’t also serving as a member.

The member said the long-shot effort to elect Upton would involve giving Democrats concessions on House rules, like subpoena powers for committees, and other assurances Republicans probably ideally don’t want to grant.

“Is it likely? No,” the member said of a potential Speaker Upton. “Is it possible? Yes.”

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